Wednesday, February 27, 2008

(Nearly) Naked Man Festival

Now that I've finally resolved some computer issues, my blog's back in the saddle again.

Yeah, I thought some naked butts would help wake you up.

This was one of the first scenes we witnessed as we walked toward the Saidaiji Kan'nonin Temple for none other than the Naked Man Festival on Feb. 16.


The Hadaka Matsuri took place in Okayama Japan, a two-hour bus ride east of Hiroshima. This was one festival I admit to having marked on the calendar several weeks in advance, anticipating it with the joyful glee once reserved for the year I discovered a Nintendo under the Christmas tree.

Well.. maybe it was a little less pure than that, but whatever.

The Naked Man Festival was absolute insanity. I have never seen so many lunatics in my entire life.

As we walked along lantern-lit streets toward the temple grounds, watching our breath vaporize in the frosty night air, we encountered several groups of hollering Japanese men prancing through the streets in nothing but socks and white fundoshi, a loin cloth similar to the ones worn by sumo wrestlers. Full exposure from the back side, with a long cloth draped across the front.

Shop owners sprayed them with hoses and hurled buckets of cold water over them as they galloped past, yelling "Washoi! Washoi!", a word that one of Joe's coworkers told him means "The gods are coming!"

Hotdogs were a hot item being sold by roadside food vendors, along with beer and jars of sake, which the parading men swilled in great quantities. Joe, as you can see, partook ... of the hotdogs. I'm told the men drink sake to purify themselves. Riiiiiight, that's it.

A bit of liquid courage was, no doubt, necessary to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. Once onto the temple grounds, the crazies were directed toward the purification pool, where they were forced to wade through waist-deep water beneath a large stone torii gate. They then had to run back around the neighborhood — getting splashed by more water all the way — and return for more punishment. Three times they had to wade through that pool, which must have been just a degree above freezing.

Check out the madness:

Once they completed their three rounds, the men headed to the main temple to wait for the competition to start.

Mobs of men — some reports said nine or ten thousand, but who knows whether that's true — poured into the temple, shivering, shouting, shoving, swaying. From my perspective, the mass seemed to take on a life of its own, moving like some giant amoeba. When a few men would stumble on the steep temple stairs, dozens more would fall with them, flowing over the steps like a human waterfall.

At points, some men passed out. Others went berserk and started beating people. That's when a large team of men in long white coats (firefighters, perhaps) would go charging into the crowd like a giant wedge and force the men back. Guards back in the temple would shine a red light on the offender, who would be dragged out forcefully. This happened perhaps a dozen times.

On both sides of the temple, small armies of police formed. I have never seen so many police in one place in my life. There had to be 600 or 700 of them.

The excitement built to a fever pitch as the clock ticked toward midnight, when suddenly all the lights cut out and everything went black. Camera flashes and the lights from the TV cameras illuminated the naked mass like a giant strobe light. It was at this moment that monks tossed the coveted shingi (sacred wooden sticks) into the crowd. The man who makes it off the temple grounds with the one real shingi in hand is said to win good luck for the year, as well as a hefty cash prize. I've heard it was around $1,000 or $2,000 — perhaps enough to cover that hospital bill for the broken bones and gouged eyeballs he'd receive in the fight, ya think? Half a dozen fake shingi circulate through the crowd as well, so the men are never really quite sure if they're busting balls over the real thing or not.

Apparently this craziness has been handed down for generations. According to Okayama city's web site, the festival traces its roots back to the early 1500s. It says priests at the temple would distribute a paper amulet, which gained a reputation for being "highly effective" (whatever that means). The priests would toss the amulet out to eager crowds that gathered in the temple. Later, the amulet was changed to a pair of wooden sticks.

The actual competition lasted around ten minutes. We could never tell where any of the shingi were, or when someone got away with the magic stick. At one point the lights went back on and after several more minutes of madness, they finally started cheering and posing for pictures on the temple steps.

Here's video of the minute leading up to lights out. After that, the low light made it difficult to get a focused shot. It pretty much looked all the same the whole time, anyway.

We passed by the medical tent on our trek back to the train station and saw a lot of guys splayed out on stretchers. Made my stomach queasy. Hypothermia is supposed to be pretty common at the event, and it gets pretty nasty in the melee. Last year someone died. He was crushed to death.

Needless to say, I quickly squashed the little voice in Joe's head that said "Hey! Maybe I should do this next year!" Even though I do think he could drop kick most of those guys across the temple. Actually, I'd be more worried about him running through frigid water and frolicking about outside for hours than I would be about him getting knocked around by a bunch of Japanese guys going ape-shit over a wooden stick.

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