Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Saidaiji Naked Man Festival Part 1: Into the Fray

First, a warning - There are no pictures of me in a loincloth in this post.  If I can procure one from a friend of acquaintance, I will post it posthaste.  I barely had time to snap the one above upon re-clothing myself after the main festivities had ended - a Japanese fundoshi loincloth provides NO extra room for accoutrements like wallets or cameras.  But I get ahead of myself. Before we don our loincloths and begin the semi-nude sprint around the temple, some background information is in order. 

The Saidaiji hadaka matsuri ("Naked Festival") is considered one of Japan's 3 most eccentric big festivals (seriously). Every year about 9000 loincloth-clad men descend upon Saidaiji Temple 45 minutes outside the little city of Okayama to participate. Most get very very drunk, and all assemble into teams to participate in a centuries old purification ritual that entails running laps around the temple arm-in-arm, including a brief dip into a sacred pond, and, most importantly, competing for auspicious little wooden artifacts called shingi thrown into the crowd by priests.  Many Japanese know it as a "fighting festival," in which the synergy of alcohol, testosterone, and a general carnival atmosphere unleashes the belligerent side of otherwise peace-loving participants. People have been trampled to death over the years in the ensuing free-for-all at Saidaiji, but most escape with little more than scraped knees and slight chill. (More information available here for those interested)

When I received word that Okayama JETs were organizing a foreigner contingent for the festival, something stirred deep within the dark, animalistic recesses of my mind: "I want a shingi," it said, "I must go." 

Though I could not convince any other male Wakayama JETs to risk serious bodily injury for a "sacred stick," the lovely Rachel and JC accompanied me to Okayama despite the temple custom prohibiting women from participating. We feasted on tasty ramen outside the station and saw the major sights of the little city (the Koraku-en garden is considered one of the three prettiest in Japan) before I joined my fifty-odd fellow participants on a bus to Saidaiji. Among them was Bear, my roommate from the JET orientation in Tokyo six months earlier (and one of the two most ursine men I've had the privilege of knowing). When we arrived at the staging area, Bear generously introduced me his contingent of JETs from Kochi, who welcomed me into their group for the next few hours as we descended into a vital, oft-repressed part of the Japanese, no, human psyche.... 

Alas, it's bedtime for me. To be continued..... 

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