Japan doesn’t have the same nudity taboos that we do in the west. Partly because the population density is so much higher here and historically has always been so. There’s precious little space to live in Japan so issues like nudity and personal space aren’t really as important.
The other reason is that in Shinto-ism nudity is considered to be purifying and so there are many “naked” festivals in Japan known as Hadaka Matsuri where hundreds of men at a time all go and do something religious, whilst naked.
Alright, not totally naked but wearing a fundoshi and some tabi and nothing else nature didn’t provide. Tabi are socks with a split in the toes to separate your big toe from the rest so you can grip sandals. They also have a pad in the bottom like a light sole. Ninja wear these. A fundoshi is a loincloth, the same kind of nappy thing that a sumo wrestler wears. Although according to wikipedia fundoshi is just traditional Japanese male underwear and was pretty much the standard until after World War 2.
For whatever reason (temporary madness, a desire to do shit that I won’t get away with when my girlfriend arrives, drunkenness???) I decided that I wanted to go and join in the nearly nude fun in the middle of February (when it is cold) for Okayama’s Hadaka Matsuri, one of the biggest in Japan.
This is my adventure.
So firstly I’ll set the general tone of the evening as it was explained to me. There are some men, they are naked, there are some priests, they will throw some “lucky” sticks into a crowd of the aforesaid naked men. The aforesaid naked men will fight each other for sticks. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Initially two more complete idiots were meant to join me in making a spectacle of myself, Gavin Coutts and Randy Rymer. However, Randy wasn’t allowed to attend as a runner because he had tattoos. Tattoos in Japan are a sign of the yakuza and pretty much every place with public nudity frowns on or excludes tattoos. This matsuri has a particular problem with tattoos because the lucky sticks are highly sought after. Some Japanese companies will pay up to £5,000 for a stick. The yakuza have apparently being waiting by the gate you have to pass through if you win, dragging off the winners, beating them up, stealing the stick and giving it to one of their mates. Previously people with tattoos have been allowed to cover themselves with make-up but this year there was a total ban. So Randy was out.
That just left two idiots, myself and Gavin.
Oh and a small crew of pervy ladies who wanted to stare at men’s naked bottoms. Nicky, Kate, Becky and Gina. Perverts, all of them.
We met up, travelled a very far distance on the train and consumed copious amounts of booze on said journey.
Yup, on the train. In Japan it is perfectly okay to drink on the street or public transport hence the beer vending machines. Train beers, as they are known to we gaijin, are an essential part of any night out in Osaka or beyond.
Arriving in Okayama myself and Gavin had 30 minutes to get more beer and fuel our bellies (we opted, naturally, for ramen) before boarding a bus full of extraordinarily drunken men from all four corners of the Earth.
But mostly from Australia, which speaks volumes doesn’t it.
It was at this point that the “safety” instructions were given to us. These ranged from the sensible (tape your hands up so people can recognise you and tape your socks on so you don’t lose them) to the worrying (please complete this sheet with your blood type, if you don’t know your blood type but O-) to the downright ludicrous (do not participate under the influence of liquor, oh how we laughed).
More drinking ensued.
We arrived at the shrine and walked through a pretty standard festival set-up before being ushered into a special tent for the competitors.
In here was FREE BOOZE. Well free sweet sake, which isn’t exactly my preferred tipple, but it certainly did a fine job of warming me up.
After some procrastination Gavin and I finally had to bow to the inevitable, doff our vestements and submit to have a grinning Japanese man put on our fundoshi for us.
Incidentally I kept my fundoshi afterwards. It’s difficult to photograph but basically imagine a strip of white cloth about 13ft long and 1ft wide.
Right, now imagine that 1ft width being gathered up and thrust violently up your arse.
No woman is ever allowed to complain to me about thongs ever again. Thongs are floss thin and sneak up there over the course of a day. They are not furiously thrust up your fundament by some cackling Japanese goblin.
Needless to say I’ve had better moments.
Well now properly, um, attired I had little to do but stay in the tent drinking more and keeping warm by the heaters inside. AT one point I got chatting to an incredibly old man. His skin was like wood. He was so wrinkled and dry that he looked like a normal man had been dried like some jerky. He was lovely though and full of fun. Apparently some old guys participate every year. Last year somebody had a heart attack and died so I hope lovely old jerky man was alright.
My heated revelry was interrupted by a command from a veteran of this festival.
I had to go run through a pond.
Yes, water, in the cold, at night, in the nuddy.
Apparently it’s purifying.
Fortunately I was very, very drunk at the time. So I did.
It wasn’t that cold actually. If you stayed in enough of a crowd to have your arm round someone’s shoulders (did I mention I was drunk?) and kept running you didn’t really feel the cold. And the wet didn’t bother me much either.
On the way back from the pond we met up with the ladies again who fed us and took photos. I am in possession of a fine photo of my chapped, freezing and wet arse but I have been forbidden by my missus from putting it on this site. However if you’re one of my facebook friends then it is easily found.
I didn’t manage to take any photos myself, after all where would I keep my camera? So all the photos in this post are courtesy of the lovely Kate, pictured above.
Getting back to the tent I now had more of a wait before the big event started with nothing to do but jump and down to stop shivering and drink more sake.
Now I want to ask you a question. What will happen if you get a huge bunch of gaijin in a tent with nothing to do but drink? Men who have nothing in common except a shared language and desire to run around nearly naked in February.
What will these men do to entertain themselves?
You may not know the answer but if you are a man when I tell you the answer it will feel right and true and just. This was the proper course of action.
We started singing Queen songs; complete with improvised harmonies. And we did the whole of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Finally the main event was due to begin. We were chased out of our tent and made to run around the town in a huge crowd. All holding shoulders and screaming “Washoi!”
And no, I have no idea what it means.
It was fantastic good fun. Pure, unbridled and primal. We were men, running screaming and naked and it felt awesome. Due to all the bodies it was pretty warm and not in the slightest bit cold. Even after they made me run through the pond AGAIN!
The crowd were loving it too, particularly the ladies and they were very pleased to see so many gaijin men. I kept going back to high-five people and shake hands. All the while screaming “washoi” of course.
Finally we got to the main alter of the shrine, basically a big platform with some steps leading up to it. On this platform and on the ground below were 4,000 nearly naked men in total. All competing for a grand total of 7 sticks.
The priests threw more purifying water on us and everyone jostled to get a good position. The closest situation I can compare it to is a big music gig. It’s the same inability to move, the same trouble breathing and the same mad desire to get to the front.
However, in gigs I try and maintain a bit of civility. This was not a time for civility, this was a time to be an animal. And so elbows out I used my massive gaijin strength to ensure that I was solidly on the platform. I have never felt stronger or manlier in my life. I wanted a damn stick.
After much sweaty and vaguely homo-erotic shoving and pushing the priests dropped the lights and cast out the sticks. Cue an immediate surge of people forward and to the sides and I got swept backwards somehow. I pushed my way back in and managed to gain some distance when the second stick was cast out. However somewhere around the third of fourth stick a random surge tripped me up and I fell down the stairs, giving myself a nasty scratch down my right side. I was up in a flash though and back in the game.
Much shoving later I was sadly bereft of any sticks but did feel fantastic. I was purged, freed of all my build up caveman instincts and riding on a massive adrenaline rush.
One of the winners.
We got back to the tent somehow and I was immediately deflated to find out that I had lost my underpants. All my clothes were in a bag, except my pants. Now I am in no way accusing somebody of stealing my underpants but it was a mystery that I still can’t really get my head around.
Besides, how many times can you claim that a night was so chaotic that you lost your underpants?
More festival food (ramen AND takoyaki, this was a good night for me) and we hooked back up with the girls and headed back to Okayama.
Of course we had missed the last train home so we had to stick around in Okayama until 6am to get the next one. First stop on our all-nighter was an American theme bar playing some kind of Japanese Ninja-themed porn. A bar I promptly fell asleep in.
Having been woken up we set off in search of a club called “Friends.”
1 hour later we found it.
1 hour of wandering up and down the same 4 sets of streets, screaming into phones, meeting people, losing people and drinking from vending machines.
I wasn’t complaining though, all the cold air had woken me up.
When we eventually found “Friends” it was a great place. The barman was massively incompetent and had a nomehodai (all you can drink offer) that he had no idea how to enforce. This basically meant we were drinking for free. I usually hate Japanese clubs (well the music in them) so I was really pleased to hear some 90’s classics being boomed out and got to dance the night away for the first time in ages.
And it had a shuffleboard. How random is that? We ended up staying the whole night.
All that was left was a sleep train ride home (we lost Gavin because he nipped off the train to pee. He’s fine now though) and then to stumble into the comfortable embrace of bed.
Quite frankly a fantastic night.