Last weekend was perhaps the most uniquely Japanese experience I’ve had to date. Five ALTs from Kochi forged out a chapter written in the book of my life to be forever told down the family line, a story of the mysterious and strange practices - of a culture from the other side of the world, a festival for purity and luck, and more than anything else - nakedness. The festival is called the Okayama Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Man for short ).
Check the link here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadaka_matsuri) for some more information. I signed up with Colin, Jon, Matt, and Jamie E. long ago, and had been doing nothing but reading about it, and getting progressively more and more worried over the distinct possibility that I could be trampled in what, for lack of a more refined description, is a 9000 naked man mosh pit. Why a mosh pit? Why naked? Why WHY WHY? Well. The best way to answer that is for me to recount my tale as it was experienced.
Phase one of naked man:
Ask other JETs you know from home about things not to be missed in Japan. First time hearing about Naked Man. Upon getting an e-mail about naked man attempt to get your friends to sign up for Naked Man, because no one wants to be naked and alone.
Phase two of naked man:
Spend two to three weeks chatting with friends about various tid-bits of information filtered through various sources of how crazy it will be. Doubt your decision to attend for the first time. Listen to horror stories from other JETs about wearing a fundoshi (the Japanese sumo style loin cloth).
Send in payment for naked man registration.
The week has finally arrived, you have hotels booked, your bus tickets arranged, and a ball of anxiousness and modesty bouncing about your stomach like a spiny peach pit accidentally swallowed whole. Despite the aforementioned nervous peach pit, traveling with friends goes well. Hotel bookings work, and suddenly you are on the bus nervously sipping on a beer, and tapping your fidgety fingers as you and your Kochi friends listen to the overly consumed chants of people still lingering a bit too much in the shadow of Belushi`s interpretation of Bluto Blutarsky.
Arrive at the event and spend about two hours walking about familiarizing yourself with the temple layout. Listen as you are told where you will be sprinting through cold cold COLD pools of purifying water. Watch the incredible taiko group in red uniforms and feel the rattle of the drums in your chest as you chomp down a stick of yaki niku (meat on a stick). [I would like to take this time to say that out of all the many snack, junk, festival foods in Japan (and not discounting my unyielding love for all forms of takoyaki, grilled onion pancake, octopus balls of joy) there is little more satisfying than a good kabob of well peppered beef or pork a drip in its own fatty juices and sweated soy sauce.]
Buy the dreaded fundoshi (roll of cloth to be wrapped about one’s privates for some semblance of modesty). So now, the event is explained in full just as we are about to walk into the changing tent. Listen as you are told that you will be competing for a “magic stick”. There are approximately 20 thrown out from the sealing of the temple at 10:00 as the lights are turned out. Before that happens hoards of mostly naked men will run a loop around the temple chanting, “Wa-shoi!” as they run. You will sprint through the previously seen waist deep purification pond, then up to the main temple to pray, then through the viewing section where you will have ice water thrown at you, pray again at second temple, then sprint out and through the streets, and repeat until the officials tell you to go line up around the temple. Once there you are told that the crowed will grow slowly at first until you are crushed, unable to put your arms down, unable to turn around, and unable to have much of any say as to where you go at all for the remainder of your night. Stare blankly when you hear that the crowed will potentially sway up to seven feet. . . once again ease away the thoughts of doubt swirling about your head, after all – you already bought the loin cloth.
Awkwardly undress in giant makeshift locker room. Write your name, address, and phone number on identification card to be stuffed into your loincloth. Wait naked in line with fundoshi for Japanese man to help you put on the large cloth diaper.
Real in horror as you are chosen to be the first of your friends to be wrapped into the fundoshi.
Receive the worst wedgy of your life. I am talking lift you off the ground, take your breath away, OH DEAR JESUS that’s not going anywhere mother have mercy.
Smile with vindictive amusement as your friends all receive the same atomic wedgy from hell that you just suffered through. Now, to your astonishment, you are ready to run the course and from here on out it’s all kinda gonna happen quicker than you will believe.
So you tear off through the gates into the February chill, and there are already chanting teams of Japanese men running about. With a Kochi, Kochi, Kochi cheer you see your friend give a quick, unsure, kiss to his girl friend (the others anxiously pat one another on the back and stare wide eyed), and then your off jogging in rhythm to chants. Your feet are less offended by running essentially barefoot on cement and gravel than you thought they would be. It’s a good pace, one you could keep for hours. The crowd cheers for you all. Hands extended out for high fives from the gargantuan white men, all pale and big nosed. You get to the purity pond, and the breath goes out of you as you plunge in up to your waist. And then it’s over. Out, pray, shower of cold water from fans, pray again, out and around the temple, and repeat! Again, again, and again! Seven, eight, maybe even nine times you all run through with the coolness of the water lessening with each pass, and your chants getting more and more vivacious. The temple starts to pack in, and you want a good spot away from the steps (they are steep and made of stone. You’d hate to fall down them as the masses heave). You think . . . this isn’t too bad. It’s like a rock concert. Then another wave of runners hits, and another, and another and like the sea it flows in and then pulls back, and with each swelling of this fleshy sweaty tide it crushes you a little more till you are forced to put your arms up for fear of loosing use of them, and you stagger on tip toes to keep from falling (even though you’re wedged in so tight you couldn’t fall were you to loose your feet). You maintain eye contact with your friends, and look about wide-eyed as you hear that there is still about an hour to go before they throw the sticks. So, you stand and sway, and sweat, and watch as the steam from body heat billows out from the epicenter of this man mass. (You take a second to think . . . oh god, gross!) Then the lights go out and suddenly there are tiny bundles of sticks flying. The pressure breaks as fights and shoving matches for the single big luck (big money) stick break out, and your feel your friend poke you in the side with something small and wooden and hear him say, “I don’t know if it is the one, but help me.” Friend shoves would be magic stick in loin cloth, you push him out avoiding agitated old crotchety men gnarled like trees with whipping leathery arms. He makes it out, and you return to the fray to search for your other friends, and then . . . it’s over. You dress, hug your other friends who just watched . . . and go home to your hotel room where you shower and just think, “ well damn”.
So that was naked man. The stick that my friend Carter got was a fake one, still lucky, but not worth any money. A team of older men came away with the big luck (40,000 dollar stick). It has all the feelings of a cleanse. The sweating, the difference in temperature, the hours of physical exertion, and the fact that the whole time you are discarding any sense of modesty or self-consciousness you had (because you are birthday suiting it all through the town and PEOPLE ARE EXCITED ABOUT IT!?) The younger Japanese men give you vigorous high fives, and you even get a few hugs. There is the sense that they are as freaked out by it as you were, and that even though you never felt like you were going to die . . . you wouldn’t really want to do it again. The older generation still looks at you with skepticism a bit. Perhaps a quick smile if you were to wave, like they are saying, “yeah, you can be here, but you are never going to get that lucky stick”.
And that was that, we returned home, and I went back to work. Tonight I’ve made a Chinese style steamed fish (thanks for inspiring me Michelle Wigs this thing was delicious at Chinese new year so I’m doing it again).
My days at school are still boring, and I am still reassessing what I want my time in Japan to be like, but over all I am still having a really great time. After meeting the other, very frat boyish, JETs from other prefectures I am so happy to be in Kochi with the family dynamic we have created, but I will save that revelation and pontification for another post. I think this one’s given it all it can give. Sorry I don't have any photos of me actually at Naked Man, but the photo of the crowd should give you some idea of exactly how packed it was. Lastly cherry blossoms are starting to come out.