When you think of Japan, you probably think of green tea, geishas, bullet trains, and grey salary-men pondering the futility of existence. You probably don’t think of people gathering in the depths of winter to watch thousands of men run around a temple wearing nothing but a fundoshi – a traditional Japanese loincloth. I am one of those men and my bones ache with cold.
As we run, we chant “wasshoi!” over and over again. Wasshoi is an old Japanese word, traditionally with connotations of harmony and togetherness. Here it is a sledgehammer, beating out any thoughts other than the need to run and cling to each other for warmth. “Wasshoi!” we chant, running with our arms draped over each other’s bare shoulders, “wasshoi! Wasshoi! Wasshoi!”
I am taking part in the annual Sadai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Man festival) in the small city of Okayama in Southeast Japan. There are several such festivals across Japan, of which the Okayama one is the biggest. The point of the festival is to purify, to literally strip yourself of the confines of society and receive good fortune for the coming year. It is gender-segregated and, as I found out when I mentioned it to my supervisor, not as well known in Japanese society as the Okayama tourist board implies…
“You’re doing what?!” he says, turning to face me at our adjoining desks in the teacher’s room.
“You know the Okayama naked men’s festival.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Oh really? I thought it was a really famous traditional festival.”
“I don’t think so.”
I log on to the internet, frantically googling ‘Okayama naked festival’ to prove I’m not some sort of weird deviant. The festival’s official site comes up. I click on it and tilt the screen in his direction. He looks at it for a few moments, and then says: “well you better hope it’s a traditional festival. Otherwise you might be in trouble with the PTA.”
I laugh. He doesn’t.
A day later, I am on a coach with some friends from my prefecture to the site of the festival, passing cartons of cheap sake around. Expensive sake is delicious – smooth, silky and full of flavour. Cheap sake is like turpentine.
Some guy is stood at the front of the bus, waffling on into a microphone about the various rules of the festival. No one is really listening to him, chatting among ourselves instead. Then he says: “and stay away from the guys in the black. They’re the yakuza.” We all fall silent.
The yakuza are the Japanese mafia – a semi-legitimate organised crime syndicate heavily implicated in human trafficking, arms smuggling and extortion. They also happen to be heavily involved in the organisation of local festivals, carrying shrines and running food stalls.
When we arrive at the site, it is packed with spectators staking out a spot. A few men have already started running. They look so cold. We feel cold, and we’re still wearing coats. What on earth was I thinking when I signed up for this, I think to myself.
We go and pay the participants’ fee and receive our loincloth and some tabi – traditional Japanese socks which are separated between the big and index toe. We are then ushered into a large blue tent where several old Japanese ladies are waiting to dress us. The one who helps me looks like Yoda.
“Take off,” she says, gesturing at my clothes.
I strip off, feeling like I’m getting ready for a medical examination. While I disrobe, Yoda-san gets my outfit ready.
“Ok,” she says as I stand naked before her. She wraps the loincloth around me, and gives the piece of cloth used for tightening a firm tug. I wince. She does it again.
“Ok. Finished,” she says, clapping her hands together. I go outside and stand in the cold February air. Dave is already out there in his loincloth, sipping from a can of beer. He passes it to me and I take a deep swig, hoping it might provide me with some semblance of warmth. We start to talk about what we will do if we need the toilet. I wonder whether all that beer and sake was such a good idea.
A few minutes later, my group is ready. We are all in various states of intoxication. We jog through a large wooden gate inscribed with various old Japanese characters, and into the wide open grounds of the temple. There is a long roped-off course. Hundreds of people stand on either side, cheering and jeering the men running by. We start to run and I hear a girl say “huh?! There are foreigners running too!”
We run the path, and, with the cheers of the crowd ringing in my ears, I start to enjoy myself. Then we have to run into the fountain. The water is incredibly cold, like plunging straight into an ice bath. Then we have to leap out of the fountain, splashing freezing water everywhere, and carry on with the rest of the course. And then we have to do it again. And again. And again. Each time we jump into the fountain, the coldness of the water makes me gasp.
After about ten laps of the temple grounds, we are ushered out and led back into the tent where we got changed earlier. We stay there for around 45 minutes, and during those 45 minutes, I honestly start to wonder if I will die. I am so cold, so incredibly cold with my skin still damp from the fountain. I drink more paint stripper sake in the hope that it will numb me. But it doesn’t.
Then, just when I fear that hypothermia is taking hold, they tell us to go back into the temple for the main part of the festival. This is the bit they talked about on the bus (they neglected to mention the running through freezing water), what was displayed on the website which I showed my sceptical supervisor the day before. This is what the whole day has been about.
At the top of a steep flight of steps is the main building of the temple. There are already lots of men in there, pushing and jostling. From the outside, they look needlessly aggressive. As I’ll find out later, they are just trying to breathe.
We make our way up the steps and enter the melee. Some men are still chanting “wasshoi!” More and more men pile into the temple, pushing the crowd forward until we are pressed up against each other. Having never played much rugby, this is by far the closest contact I’ve ever had with another sweaty man.
Because that’s the other thing – it is now really, really hot. Whereas minutes before, I was worrying about frostbite, now, surrounded by thousands of other bodies in a space the size of a cricket pitch, I am dripping with sweat. And there is an elbow jammed into my back.
The organisers are obviously concerned about us overheating because some men appear on the overlooking balcony and flick water at us. Every droplet that falls on me is like some blessed relief.
Suddenly the lights go out. The men roar as the chief priest of the temple appears on the balcony, lit up by torchlight. He chants a traditional Japanese prayer and tosses some sticks into the crowd.
Those sticks are what we are here for. If you end the festival clutching one of the sticks, you will receive good luck or (if you get one of the bigger ones) a cash prize.
The sticks have been soaked in incense to make them easier to detect, and also harder to escape with. People grapple, push and shove for a chance to grab one. There are shoulders in backs, knees in ribs, hands in faces. Sirens blare in the background. They did say someone died five years ago.
Someone in front of me catches a stick. Another almighty roar goes up from the crowd and there is a sudden surge forward. Then from the way the crowd suddenly pushes back, I guess that the stick has either been caught or dropped. I decide that I can’t take much more and so try to elbow my way out.
People press forward as I push back. The air is thick with the stench of sweat. I notice some other guys who look like they’re trying to leave too so I join them. We form a crocodile like French schoolchildren, shoving others out of the way. Finally we make it out to the top of the steps. Below is a seething mass of men grappling in the dirt.
Dave is stood at the top of stairs, watching the scene below. Seeing me, he walks over and says “I think I’ve had enough. Don’t you?”
“I think so,” I say.
We head towards the exit. On our way out, we make a half-hearted attempt to join a group attempting to bring down a man who is desperately trying to get out of the temple with a stick in his hands. He is tackled to the ground and the men yell with delight as the stick is yanked from his grasp. Dave and I sidestep him lying dejected on the floor.
Soon we are back at the tent. We take off our loincloths and put our clothes back on. As we hand them back to the old ladies, they bow and say thank you.
We buy cans of beer and some yakitori from one of the food stalls and go back into the temple and join the spectators. Some men are still fighting for the last few sticks. As I stand and watch them, I wonder if I really understand this festival. I’m not sure that I do. But I do understand that Japan is a country where men will wrestle almost naked in the wintry earth for a few bits of wood, and then, like me, will be back at work on Monday morning like it never happened.
There is a sudden cheer from the crowd as one man eludes the others and sprints towards the exit. Others follow in his wake. A few snowflakes start to fall and I tighten my scarf around my neck.