Every year on the 3rd Saturday in February, one of the coldest night of the year, a crowd of 100s gathers around Saidaiji Temple in Okayama city at midnight. Pushing, crushing each other they vie for space and wait for the chance to receive a blessing, good luck for a year. When the stroke of midnight finally occurs the lights are shut off and the head priest throws three shingi (sacred sticks) into the masses for the participants to grapple for. Of course what I’m leaving out here is that the crowd is entirely composed of nearly naked men clad only in fundoshi (a Japanese style loincloth) and who are completely juiced on sake.
Hadaka Matsuri literally means naked festival. There are several in Japan every winter, but the largest and most notorious is held in Okayama City just a short train ride away from my island. Definitely an unusual festival and although it is violent and may seem indecent to the more prudent readers out there, it is a sacred religious event that prides on teamwork. Almost all the men are in teams. They arrive at Saidaiji several hours before midnight and change into their fundoshi. (Usually at this point
On our way there
Photo credit to Alexa! ^_^
many of them have been drinking, a lot.) Then they have a ritual of purification that involves submerging themselves in cold water and then running around the temple complex. Considering that it is freezing or below outside it seems a bit daft to me, but they seem to enjoy the challenge of it.
Some friends and I arrived in a group together just I time to see the last of the runners arrive and goggle at the men pressed, smothering and crushing each other on the stairs of the temple; some smushed into the pillars and barriers. The stick dropping wasn’t all dramatic. Since the lights are off you can’t really see the shingi and various other decoy sticks they drop into the group of steaming men. Two of the shingi were quickly rushed out of the complex and out of site, practically in the blink of an eye. However, one poor man with the third stick got trapped on the grounds in front of where we were standing. At first we heard a smacking sound and then felt lots of pushing. People were being belted into the shields of the riot police blocking us from the participants. A few
teams of men had decided to all out brawl for the last stick. People were tossing water on them as the fought and steam rose from their bruised bodies. Eventually someone escaped the scuffle with the last stick and we all headed back to Saidaiji Station and went to Okayama for an interesting night at an Aussie bar. ^_^
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