Trip Start Jul 30, 2006
12Trip End Ongoing
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Date: Third Saturday of February
Place: Saidaiji Temple,
City: Saidaiji-naka, Okayama Prefecture
When I awoke that Saturday morning I looked out the window with more than just a little apprehension at the rain, wind and cold, and tried to imagine myself running naked through such weather. Having failed, I started to wonder why I'd agreed, nay paid, to do it. I checked the Okayama weather forecast for that evening: 3°C, light wind, chance of precipitation: 90%. Joy.
Every year on the third Saturday of February, brave men amass at Saidaiji Kan'nonin Temple for the popular folk festival Saidaiji Eyo, or more commonly, the Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Man Festival). For this year, 2007, it fell on Saturday the 17th February and I was to be amongst them.
Now preserved as a distinguished cultural asset by Okayama Prefecture, the festival was originally founded about 500 years ago during the Eisho era (1504-1521), when priests of the temple would distribute paper amulets called Go-o to worshippers as tokens of the completion of their New Year's ascetic training. Over time these amulets gained a reputation for greatly increasing the fortunes of those who received them, and so demand for them grew. As the number of hopeful recipients swelled, the date of the festival was changed from ￼its traditional date as set by the lunar calendar to the third Saturday in February, and the easily torn paper amulets were replaced with wooden sticks (ofuda お札). At exactly midnight, the lights are turned off and the priests throw a pair of these sticks from a raised window of the temple into the waiting crowd inside. The sticks are called shingi, the word being originally written using two kanji meaning true and wood, however today the first character has been changed to one meaning treasure - although the pronunciation is unchanged. Measuring 4 cm in diameter and about 20 cm in length, the shingi are considered to be the sticks of the gods, and anyone who can catch one and drive it upright into a wooden measuring box full of rice, known as a masu 升, is proclaimed the lucky man, and is blessed with a year of happiness.
Needless to say, the fighting for the title of lucky man can be fierce and we were well warned beforehand that the light-hearted or frail should not participate. We were also told whilst on the bus from Okayama station to Saidaiji, that participants must be male and are required to only wear traditional fundoshi 褌 (loincloth) and tabi 足袋 (socks) during the festival. Furthermore, participants must not to have tattoos or have consumed alcohol. To this, many of the 56 foreign participants who had journeyed from all over Japan to participate (most with drinks in hand) let out loud protests. The next rule however, suggested that the organisers of the event were well aware that the previous rules were going to be broken: no participant with a tattoo, visible or covered, can be declared the lucky man - even if they do manage to put a shingi in the rice box.
We arrived at around 8:30 p.m and walked the 10 mins to the temple area. The festival however, was already well underway. The boy's Hadaka Matsuri begins first at 6:00 p.m with first and second grade boys scrambling for mochi 餅 (soft rice cakes), third and fourth grade boys for gofukuzutsu (octagonal treasure tubes), and fifth and sixth grade boys for takarazutsu (treasure tubes).
At 9:00 p.m the skies come alive with the Eyo Winter Fireworks and the temple grounds￼ rumble with the sounds of the all women's taiko (Japanese drumming). Despite the rain and cold, the temple grounds continue filling with the many spectators arriving to witness the spectacle. Most of us foreign participants however were inside a changing tent experiencing (or about to) the significant pain of being dressed in fundoshi.
Located near the banks of the Yoshii river, runners enter the temple grounds as a group and must first purify their bodies in the freezing waters of the river, then run around the temple grounds and visit the statues of two deities - SenjuKan'non and Go'ousho Daigongen, before heading back to the main temple and repeating the routine.
I'm not sure whether it was all the testosterone, all the sake, or the knowledge that we were outnumbered 20:1 by Japanese men, but the fervour of the men inside the tent was getting stronger and stronger, until it reached the point where we simply burst forth onto the streets, fundoshi clad and loudly chanting the traditional "Wasshoi! Wasshoi!" We charged to the temple grounds through the spectator lined streets and plunged into the icy water. Only after having done this and most of a lap around the temple grounds did we realise that we may have jumped the gun a little. With an estimated 10,000 participants expected, we suddenly noticed we were the only ones there - although the spectators in the temple grounds seems to see the funny side of it, and I'm sure our accompanying TV camera crew got our confusion and overzealous enthusiasm well documented. At any rate we did our lap, some went round again just for the hell of it, and the rest went back to the tent to warm up and drink some more.
As midnight approached, many laps had been run and despite the cold, the rain, the running through icy water, and the mess that now adorns your feet that used to be your tabi, camaraderies had been formed, hardships endured and the growing crowd around the temple and increased fervour in the shouts of "Wasshoi! Wasshoi" indicated that the climax of the evening was soon to arrive. At this time in the temple area there were about 9,000 men donned in their fundoshi, and the atmosphere was electric.
Up to this point the running and sake had kept you warm (enough) but now one has to choose their level of involvement, and each has its perils. For those who don't wish to climb the eight or so stone steps to the main floor of the temple where the shingi are dropped, you may be saved from the madness of the throng, but you must now stand in the wind and rain and endure being essentially naked, and open to the elements, on one of the coldest nights of the year.
Moments before midnight all the lights were shut off and a great roar rose up from the crowd. The shingi as well as a number of similarly sized willow strips (also considered lucky) were thrown into the crowd - and for several minutes in the dark, complete mayhem ensued.
￼For my part I managed to clutch what I believe was a willow strip (I doubt it was a shingi) but as I only managed to get one hand on it, it was soon wrenched from my grasp.
The lights came back up but the fighting for control of the sticks continued, and perhaps this is when the team tactics most come into play (many people attend the festival as part of a local or work related team). I was content enough just to have participated though, without needing to claim any of the available trophies. So having managed to leave the brawling piles of humanity, I humbly limped back through the rain to the change tent.
Such was my experience that night. As I hope I've demonstrated here through my writing, the Hadaka Matsturi was not a night I will soon forget.