|I was quite literally in the middle of this.|
And now, the long-overdue conclusion of this sordid tale:
Having joined forces with my friend Bear and his compatriots from Kochi prefecture, we made our way to the center of town. A group of friendly volunteers in white robes passed out paper cups of warm amazake, a sort of watery Japanese rice pudding, by the side of the road. Wafts of grilled noodle and roast chicken drifted through the narrow streets. We partook of some tasty Japanese carnival food (think meat-on-a-stick) before dutifully heading into the night's first trial: the changing area.
Within the large tarp tent about 100 men in various stages of undress and about 5 wizened, elderly women milled about. Fundoshi loincloth and tabi socks in hand, we stripped and joined one of the many lines to be... fitted. Motivated by altruism, sadism, or some perverse combination, the fundoshi assistants at Saidaiji spent many hours that day helping complete strangers don the traditional white loincloths , which begin the night as nothing more than long strips of fabric. Most were old ladies, but ours was a young, bored-looking man, who wasted no time in wrapping the fundoshi around our lower halves and sealing it with a sudden, eye-popping, squeal-inducing YANK.
Properly attired, our group stepped back out onto the street....
We are running, shoulder to shoulder, flanked in front and behind by other, larger groups of Japanese revelers. "Wa-shoi wa-shoi! Wa-shoi wa-shoi! Wa-shoi wa-shoi!!" We enter the temple grounds, veer to the right - ahead is a murky pond with an 8-foot obelisk at its far end. The air is cold, but the water is so much colder, up to our chests as we loop around the obelisk. "WASHOI WASHOIIII! WAHHHHH!!!!!" Our tabi and fundoshi soaked and sandy, we ascend the stairs to the man temple. Two claps and a silent bow. Down the temple stairs and around to the annex, where we ring the sacred bell and pay obeisance once more. Back to the courtyard - "WA-SHOI!! WAH-SHOI! WA-SHOI!" - and out the main gate.
.... We repeat this circuit four or five times. Our voices grow hoarse. The second lap, I notice the size of the crowd at the margins of the temple ground: Thousands of fully-clothed spectators littered with TV cameras and the occasional newscaster. We are ascetics, celebrities, Japanese peasants of two hundred years past. After our fifth or sixth bow within the main temple, we are told to stop: It is beginning. The crowd begins as trickle, wet, drunk men stumbling onto the platform and awkwardly standing in place. The air grows warm and I notice that I no longer have room to stretch my arms. The platform is packed, every face oriented at the inner balcony on which stand priests and photographers. "50 minutes!!"
The crowd compacts. I feel a formless pressure on all sides, unable to move a single inch in any direction. "Lift your arms!" Trampling and heat exhaustion are genuine concerns here, and the priests address the former by splashing buckets of water on the crowd. Steam rises. "Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!" The horde heaves. A shove at its margins is amplified, releasing shockwaves of human motion in the center. 4 feet to the left. 3 feet back. I lift my feet to avoid being stomped on (having lost my left tabi in the pond) and am held several inches above the ground by the pressure of those crowded around me. A drop in a sea of flesh and sweat. Always moving. The lights dim. Silence. A priest steps onto the balcony clutching a large bundle, unceremoniously flinging its contents into the crowd. 8 or so rectangular objects fly above our heads. THE SACRED STICKS!!!! One makes contact with my outstretched hand and I swiftly pull it to my chest. The unwelcome sensation of fingers not my own, searching my torso blindly for the prize. Cradling the shiki in my left arm, I curl my right palm into a fist and proceed to methodically bash the hands of would-be stick thieves. Thank god for all those years of karate. Bear is to my right. I poke him with the shiki - "I have something." Bear uses his ursine bulk to shield my rear half as I make my way out of the main platform, concealing the shiki within crossed arms. We make it down the stairs and into the courtyard. Fresh air!
We examine the shiki: A bundle of sticks and leaves from a sacred tree, wrapped in a paper inscription. But it gives off no incense smoke. A "little luck" stick, its value measured only in intangible good fortune for the rest of the year. Before us, two great balls of human flesh and violence slowly advance towards the gate, shouting and swearing. Blood streams from scraped knees and smashed noses. The big luck sticks, worth several thousand dollars each. I recross my arms and head out the main gate as inconspicuously as possible.
|The Big Luck shiki|
|A Little Luck shiki|
And so this tale comes to a happy end, the hapless hero somehow emerging from the heart of darkness with a goofy grin on his face, treasure in hand. I find myself struggling for words to communicate the primal nature of the Naked Man Festival. As if the higher functions of one's brain cede control to lower mammalian or reptilian dictates: Run. Shout. Grab. Protect. Flee.
It was also a lot of fun, despite the various bruises and scrapes incurred. How infrequently it is that we engage in physical contest, where one's strength and animal wits are the sole determinants of the outcome. For most of human history (or rather, prehistory), I suppose, this was a primary way of engaging with the world, whether to obtain food or settle disputes. Nowadays we channel those basic urges, sublimating them, abstracting them. But, I think, It's good for the psyche, if not the soul, to embrace that side of one's nature every one in a while.
Many, many thanks to Bear, Jacy, and Rachel, who kindly let me use her pictures!