Most people haven’t noticed, but I’ve been training ever since I arrived in Japan. Not physical training, mind you, but social training. Being a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan is sometimes like having two heads. Adults stare you in confusion. Children hide behind their parents. Students are oddly fascinated. All this “standing out” has given me this incredible layer of social apathy. I am no longer fazed when people stare. I no longer die a little inside when children run from me. I relish the times when people don’t sit next to me on the train, even when the train is CRAMMED with people. All this “training” has prepared me for what happened on February 19th, the Hadaka Matsuri (better known as the Naked Man Festival).
The Hadaka Matsuri is a fertility festival held all across Japan, but the largest one is in Ookayama Prefecture. When I say largest, I mean it. There are 9,000 participants, all male. Allow me to tell you a tale of manliness, testosterone, and true grit.
The Ookayama AJET chartered a bus for all the visiting JETs from across Japan. There were probably about 30 of us in all. On the bus, the Ookayama AJET president gave us the lowdown on what to expect at the festival. The main event didn’t start until 10, so they suggested that we “suit up” around 8:30. We had arrived at 6:30 so we had plenty of time to kill. That is, until one Nara JET suggested that we “suit up” now. Screw the whole 8:30 thing. Ok, I’m game. Let’s do it.
I bought my fundoshi (sumo diaper) and running slippers and went into the changing tent with 4 other Nara JETs. I had to fill out a personal form including name, address, and blood type (in case I get injured). That was….unnerving. There were some old men waiting for us in the tent. They were volunteer fundoshi wrappers. I got naked and let the old man have his way with me. He gave me the biggest wedgie of my life. He slapped my belly as he commanded I spin so the fundoshi wrapped tightly. High school bullies could learn a thing or two from this man. I heard that in other tents, there were also old ladies doing the fundoshi wrapping.
There we stood. 4 proud men, buttocks out, ready for the weirdest festival of our lives. By the way, it was cold…ahem. In this festival, groups of men (similarly dressed) run around the temple grounds in Saidaiji shouting “Washoi!” “Washoi” is a mantra meant to heat up the body. Remember, it’s f*cking cold. We waited for a group of men to come running by so we could join their ranks. We were so excited that we jumped into the first group that ran by. BIG mistake.
We were running with our new “pals” shouting the mantra and having a great time. Then we started to notice that there are young girls (fully clothed) running behind us, cheering us on (we were in the back of the group). Then we start to notice that this group is running AWAY from the temple. The route should only be about .5 km total. We had probably jogged 1.5 kms. Now we start to get worried. Then, our moment of clarity. The group runs through the gates of the local high school and our mouths drop. We had been running with a high school group. As we approached the gate, an old lady came out and blocked our entrance. We turned beat red (not from the cold) and apologized profusely.
When the group of kids disappeared into the school gymnasium, we, the Nara JETs, were left about 2 km from the festival. We did what any other gaijin would do: We ran back towards the festival, in our group of 4, shouting “Washoi” as we made our way through the public streets. Social apathy was running at maximum.
We finally found a “real” group of participants by listening to the deafening cries of “WASHOI!” We joined the pack and began our tour of Saidaiji Temple. The men linked arms with us and we made out way onto the temple grounds. The atmosphere was electrifying! I was having a blast!
After entering the temple, we ran through a bath of ritual holy water. The water was freezing. As soon as my legs were submerged, I lost my breath! The water is only waist-deep, however, in excitement, all the men splash each other as they run through. AHHHHH! After the holy water rinse, we go to the temple where the priests throw MORE water on us. We ring the traditional bell, then exit the temple grounds. During my first turn, we ended the run in front of barrels of hot water. Everyone splashed the water around throwing off my body’s equilibrium. I WAS becoming accustomed to the cold, until this point. After the hot water bath, we began the same run, all over again. By the end of this tradition, I had completed the run about 9 times. It was so much fun!!!!
Before the main event at 10, all the men began to gather around the temple. No more running. No more camaraderie. No more bonding. It was go time. The crowd packed tight at the temple plateau. So tight in fact, I could not move my arms. We were packed so tight, the crowd took on a life of its own. From the outside, the crowd seemed to breathe at the same time. One could see the crowd get bigger with inhalation and smaller with exhalation. The crowd swayed right and left. Steam was rising from our bodies. The priests overlooking the mass shined a red light on sections where they believed we were getting too rowdy. When someone got injured, a team of police officers and medics made a hole and pulled him out.
At 10 o’clock, the light went out…all of them. Darkness. 12 sticks were thrown into the crowd. 10 of them are fakes, just lucky sticks. 2 of them are worth $4,000. When the sticks were thrown, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy of fists and elbows. Soon after, I was ejected from the crowd and thrown down some stairs. Luckily people were there to catch me...so I didn’t die. The scramble for the sticks is quite an amazing sight. I had no interest in rejoining the fight, so I watched from the bottom of the stairs. The goal is to get a stick, then fight your way out of 4 exits to the temple. Corporations, mafias, and other local teams have been preparing strategies for this event for months. They practiced. We did not.
When the event concluded, we went to the changing tent and put our clothes back on. The Nara girls, who were watching, gave us hand warmers. Much appreciated. Our trial had ended. Will I do this again next year? Hell yes.
P.S. I am not posting pictures of myself wearing a fundoshi. The last thing I need is for future employers to see me basically naked.