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Kyushu Day 1

Very late I know but I’m finally going to get around to talking about my summer vacation in Kyushu. When this is finished I aim to take you on a tour of Tokyo and then it should be more kit-kat reviews.

For those not in the know Japan is comprised of 4 main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku) as well as many smaller ones. Kyushu is the southernmost of the main islands.

Consequently it is the hottest and balmiest. Not the smartest of choices for a summer trip.

Oh and the island possesses several active volcanoes.

The whole trip was somewhat unplanned on the spur of the moment. Fran and I had planned to go to Aomori and Matsushima in the north of the country. However after a friend of ours visited for three weeks our finances were not looking particularly healthy. Consequently we couldn’t afford to fly up to Aomori and pay for the hotels there.

However we were so disappointed at not getting a holiday this summer that we decided to look at other options. Kyushu popped up and a little digging proved that 6 days in Kyushu in 3 different cities was cheaper than just 3 days in Aomori during the festival time we wanted to go see.

And so in less than three days we booked it, packed it and completed a Peter Kay gag.

The general randomness of the genesis of the holiday would permeate the whole vibe of the trip. Everywhere we went strange, odd and somewhat random events would happen to us. It was a very ramshackle vacation but a very fun one.

The first of the strange detours was taking the bus to the ferry port. A special shuttle bus had been laid on and Fran and I boarded quite happily and sat down. As did a few other couples.

Then an entire football team with multiple squads tried to get on. All told about 30 high school kids, all with massive bags of gear and their coach were trying to squeeze onto a tiny bus.

For the better part of twenty minutes kids piled onto the bus squeezing into every available inch of space but no matter how far they moved up there seemed to be no way they would all fit. Surely the coach could take the next bus with some of the kids right? Nope, he was determined to send the whole team at once.

Finally, miraculously the whole team managed to fit on, leaving little room for breathing or moving for the rest of us and we set off; passing many other bus stops with long lines of people with bags that looked excited and then subsequently more disappointed than a child whose just been informed its hamster had died as we zoomed past without stopping.

The ferry was a bargain. 8,800 Yen for an overnight trip from Kobe to Beppu in Kyushu. That 8,800 Yen bought you space in a room. The room was about sized for 20 people with a tatami mat floor and every person got a futon, a pillow and sheets. The journey was about 12 hours long arriving at about 7:30 in Beppu after a good nights sleep. I can think of no more agreeable way to travel. I’m sure if this was Britain then people would stay up all night being noisy or drunk and if this was another Asian nation that set up would be excuse to have everything you own stolen. However being Japan everyone was courteous, honest and reserved. There was even a little television on the wall displaying the weather.

What was the forecast?

Thunderstorms…for the whole week.

Arse.

Oh well.

Sadly the only thing the ferry lacked was anything entertaining in the slightest little bit so after a not amazing dinner and a best of 7 game of connect 4 (which Fran won) we went to bed.

Day 2, Beppu.

After awaking and refreshing the Ferry drew into the port and took the train onto Beppu.

Beppu is a smallish town at the base of the active volcano Aso. Tourism and bamboo are its main industries and what it mostly has going for it is lots of varied and very traditional onsen.

It is also the quirkiest place I have ever visited in Japan. Japan is usually considered to be weird and odd by outsiders but live here long enough and you start to take most of that in your stride. Crucially most places in Japan are not odd by Japanese standards, they are fairly homogenous. The Japanese don’t like quirky, they like conformity. Beppu though was quirky and very proud of it. The first inkling of this I got was the announcement the lady on the train made as we approached the station. Normally announcers mumble a place monotonally in the bored way you would if you had to say the same place names for hours everyday. Instead this woman pronounced it in a rising inflection like someone calling suh-wee to a pig. Bep-pooooooo Bep-poooooooo. Fran and I had to immediately pause in our conversation to check what we had heard.

The second wondrously quirky thing was our hotel which was a gleaming art deco and chrome monstrosity transported wholesale from the middle of the 50’s.

The third thing was probably this statue. I say probably because whilst it is definitely odd I don’t know if it is quirky of downright bizarre. It is, as the base of the statue says.

“The man called Shiny Uncle who loved Children.”

Another inscription describes how he pioneered tourism to Beppu from the main land.

Now clearly this guy is something of a local hero who probably cared deeply and genuinely about kids like a nice grandparent. However the statue makes him look like some kind of paedophile super-hero. The expression on his face is one of a cackling Mr Burns look-alike. The cape makes him look like some kind of mental case. The pose is borrowed from the child catcher from “chitty chitty bang bang” and there is a genuine child hanging from his cape. He properly looks like he is going to sweep down from the sky and kidnap children whilst cackling menacingly. It is the most horrifyingly unflattering portrait I have ever seen.

Stopping to drop our bags off Fran and I went off to take a trip.

TO HELL!

As I mentioned above Kyushu is full of active volcanoes and Beppu sits on the slope of one of them, Asoyama. Consequently Beppu is something of an onsen town with dozens of hot springs making use of the volcanic sulphur and natural hot springs.

However a few of these hot springs are far, far too hot for people to actually bathe in. Not to be outdone the enterprising people of Beppu have cobbled together a tourist attraction out of them, dubbing these hot onsen “hells” and tarting them up a bit with some statues and signs.

Most of them seemed unutterably naff. Particularly a pair that had small zoos which reportedly kept animals in very poor condition. A few were just pools of water with some statues by the side. However three of the hells were genuinely quite interesting.

Water spout hell has a geyser which erupts at regular intervals of about half an hour. A few pictures in Japanese explained how it works and Fran and I waited for about five minutes to watch it erupt and then go oooh and ah. It was bloody hot and very steamy and all this steam is used to grow a tropical garden. Fran and I had a quick wander round the garden and then fled the humidity by standing in the gift shop until the ac freeze dried the sweat to our bodies.

Monks hell is full of bubbling mud pools which apparently resemble the bald head of a monk. Although these were pretty cool to look at what most impressed me is how the sides of the pools had built up. Layers and layers of mud had formed little baths about three foot high filled with boiling and bubbling mud.

Finally blood pool hell is easily the most impressive out of the whole set. Iron in the mud at the bottom has mixed with the water to give it a bright red hue that looks like a lake of steaming boiling blood. Hell seems an apt description, although actually it was rather pleasant, if a bit hot, and had a lovely foot bath.

I even indulged myself in eating an egg….FROM HELL!!! I.e. boiled in the onsen water,

It tasted…of egg. And it didn’t half stink too.

Having visited hell we set about trying out Beppu’s other famous attraction, the sex museum.

My apologies guys but for obvious reasons there will be no pictures from the sex museum.

I have visited the sex museum in Amsterdam and my main memory of that was being overwhelmed to the point of desensitisation with cocks. From the first room right until the end the entire edifice seems all too obsessed with transforming any object you can imagine (hairbrush, jug, chair, vase, smoking pipe, etc) into some kind of phallus. This is at first shocking, then funny, then quite interesting and finally utterly boring. “Oh look,” one drearily moans “yet more cocks, this time arranged to form an entire chez lounge.”

Gratifyingly the sex museum in Beppu is much more balanced in terms of gender and gives equal opportunities to transform common household objects into phallic and yonic (which is apparently the female equivalent of phallic I was pleased to discover) sculptures. It’s also much smaller then the one in Amsterdam and so you’re still square in the funny stage of the experience by the time you leave. One particularly enlightening section devoted to the relative size of animal genitalia was particularly enlightening, although the sculpture of a Whale’s vagina will haunt my nightmares for many years to come I fear.

There were a few problems with it. Many of the exhibits were broken and in need of repair (that poor zebra) and of course in Japan it is illegal to show uncensored images of human genitalia which somewhat puts the kibosh on the whole museum really. They rather neatly got around this by displaying all their antique Japanese erotica in glass cases with a little frosted bit about 6” in front of the actual print. If you look at the print straight on it is censored however if you are not yet a complete and utter drooling buffoon you can take a step to the right and look at it completely unhindered from an angle.

Since we were now so hot and sweaty (from all the steam you perverts) Fran and I decided to try out the thing Beppu is really famous for; Onsen.

Beppu is one of the premier Onsen towns in Japan sporting some of the best and most unusual Onsen in the country, many of them completely free. Fran and I set off to Kannawa, just up the mountain to try some of them out.

Kannawa was a very cool place to have a wander around. It is a tiny little village and almost all the buildings have traditional thatched roves. Even better some of the old buildings were a kind of traditional bath salt farm. Basically a pipe is dug into the earth from which steam and sulphur can emerge. Above this is built a thatched roof that is set directly into the floor kind of like a wooden tent. Steam rises and floats out through the roof but the sulphur stays behind and settles on the floor. Eventually the local people scrape all the sulphur up and use it to make bath salts which they flog to tourists who wish to smell of eggs.

And in fact pretty much the entire town stinks, horribly, of eggs. The stench of sulphur is omnipresent and choking. As much as I enjoyed the scenery and just wandering around; it was almost impossible to stay that long because the smell was so awful.

So we quickly scuttled down the hill and made our way to a lonely planet approved “mud bath.”

Unlike the swish and organised onsen I’m use to in Kansai this was a decidedly home made and ramshackle affair. Much of the baths had a rough and ready quality to them as if they were made on the cheap a few weekends ago.

The onsen itself was split into four stages. First we had to shower and clean ourselves. Secondly we got into a lovely hot sulphur bath. This made us smell of eggs (why people would want this, I do not know) but was wonderfully relaxing on our tired limbs. Kyushu is very hilly and after trudging up and down a mountain all day a nice bath really does a world of good. Thirdly there was an indoor mud bath. The bath itself was mostly more sulphur water but with a layer of soft, silty mud at the bottom like some kind of velvet cushion. This was squelchy and felt awesome to run through your fingers but the bath was so poorly designed, and the mud so slippery that I kept sinking in.

Finally there is an outside mud bath which is mixed gender. There is a wall of towels in the middle protecting modesty but both boys and girls can come up to the wall to have a chat.

I say protecting modesty, protecting female modesty at least. There was no male modesty to protect. Women can enter the outside bath from their inside bath simply by rounding a corner. This means that as they approach the wall all the relevant bits are nicely underwater. In contrast the men have to stroll across the courtyard, in full view of the ladies, with tackle flopping around in the breeze.

Fran had gotten to the outside bath before me and was waiting at the towels for me to arrive. All the other women were sitting around the corner out of sight meaning Fran looked like some kind of massive pervert sitting and staring at all the naked boys as they emerged one by one. Not that she isn’t a massive pervert; but she doesn’t like to look like one in public.

And on that note I shall bid you sayonara. Next time we will explore Beppu further. If you like bamboo, you’ll love it.

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I’m back. 

Did you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year period or I suppose I should say “Holiday Season” for our American readers (all two of them)? I certainly did. My Christmas time activities are a private affair, largely because it would just consist of a list of the various ways I gorged myself like a pig, however I will be posting something about my New Year festivities shortly. 

My resolutions this year by the way are: 

1.    Study for the official Japanese Language Qualification level 4 or 3. I haven’t decided if I stand a shot at 3 yet but 4 is practically worthless.

2.    Join the gym (yes, pretty obvious).

3.    Consistently get at least two blog posts on the site a week and attempt to get more. 

Before I talk about the New Year first I want to talk about the very last thing of interest I did last year. A trip to the onsen town of Kinosaki

Kinosaki is a very small town roughly North of Kobe on the opposite coast of Japan. It is famous for two things, Onsen and crab. Both were in enormous abundance when Fran and I visited last year. 

The start of our trip was a very long train ride. It is quite easy to get spoilt by the trains in Japan which are both fast, comfortable and amazingly frequent. When the Shinkansen turns a journey that spans the entire length of the country into something that can be done in half a day it is a little easy to lose all sense of perspective when it comes to rail travel. Alas, Kinosaki is such a small and out of the way spot that there is no shinkansen access to it. This leaves the traveler with two options for getting there. Take the regular JR at regular JR prices but change trains frequently and spend about five hours on them or reserve a seat on a special train that will cost as much as the shinkansen and go direct but only move at regular JR speed taking about two hours to get there. Being the laziest traveler in the world I opted for the latter. 

And I must say the scenery was spectacular. Japan is all about its coastline, everyone lives here and it’s just one big continuous urban sprawl along the southern coast. On my rare trips into the inside of the country I am always taken aback by how much space there is and how much untamed raw nature is left in this country. Japan really is a land of dichotomies. It doesn’t have proper suburbs it just moves from city to dotted villages in the blink of an eye. 

The scenery itself was wonderful. Great grey mountains, fierce looking forests and rice fields up to the horizon. However, it was a touch monotonous in its wonder being all of the same character for the entire journey. We did get very excited when we spotted snow on the mountaintops and the roofs of people’s houses but sadly as we came back down from the mountains any sight of snow began to vanish and Kinosaki itself was woefully un-Christmassy. 

That said the town was absolutely delightful. It was pretty small and focused on two main roads. One running away from the station and one crossing this road that consisted of two pavements each opposite a river. The river street in particular was really lovely, a page straight from a Japanese history book. Lined with willows and lit by lanterns at night with wild herons living in it. It was simply too perfectly quaint. 

As I said Kinosaki is famous for its onsen and its crabs and the assault of crab imagery begins as soon as you get there. Visitors to the town start their trip by being assaulted by a giant crab monster.

And the main street is lined with market stalls and vendors with boxes of live snow crabs wriggling out in the open waiting to be bought. 

We wandered down the street taking in the absolutely gorgeous architecture. Everything is done to a very traditional Japanese style and the streets feel positively ancient, even though they’re not. 

Eventually we got to our ryokan, a kind of traditional Japanese Inn. 

To anyone considering a trip to Japan or currently living here I cannot recommend ryokan enough. The standard practice for a ryokan is to stay in a Japanese style room with tatami mats on the floor, all the chairs and tables at floor level, a sacred alcove with a scroll and plant in it, and the futon beds packed away. Each night a maid will come into your room at an arranged time and unpack and lay the futon. Meals are eaten in the room and again are brought to you at an arranged time by a maid. The level of service is incredible. Quick, efficient but also really friendly. We had a nice chat with our maid about football as he got our beds ready. 

And as for the meals, wow. I can honestly say without hyperbole that our meal the first night in the Ryokan is the best meal I have ever eaten in Japan. True to the theme of the town dinner consisted mainly of many variations on snow crab. So we ate: 

Snow crab sashimi (i.e. raw snow crab)

Grilled snow crab

Snow crab nabe (snow crab in a hotpot stew)

Tsukemono (Japanese pickles)

Kaiseki (various arranged small side dishes such as a small piece of tofu with a sauce on it, a prawn, etc)

 And to top it off just a whole crab there to be used as we saw fit.

This in addition to the usual extras like rice and miso and dessert. 

The Ryokan claims that the menu offers 2 and a half crabs per person but it feels more like 20. It takes an incredibly long time to eat and by the end of it you are fed up of crab but my god is it good. Really, mouthwateringly taste bud glorifying, kiss the chef good.

 

The next night we opted for the not quite so impressive but still pretty amazing Beef menu. This consisted of more sashimi and kaiseki, a kind of savory custard with food in it called … a bowl of cold soba noodles with dipping sauce, an absolutely wonderfully done tempura set and finally sukiyaki with tajima beef. 

Tajima beef is one of the many variants of Hyogo beef (which is what Kobe beef is generally known as.) Like all the Hyogo beef family Tajima beef is incredibly soft and tender and beautifully marbled. Japanese beef is not usually used to make steaks but rather it is served in thin slices and eaten in a traditional Japanese stew such as nabe or sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is a kind of do it yourself hotpot, similar to fondue. Everyone sits around a bowl with some stock bubbling in it and takes it in turns to drop vegetables, tofu, fu, meat and other things in it. Watch it cook for a few seconds, dip it in raw egg and then eat it. Rare tajima beef cooked in such a fashion is a rare treat that hits every taste in your mouth at once. Mine is watering just remembering it.

Breakfast was not served in our rooms but rather in a shared banquet hall. It was nowhere near as amazing as dinner but it was still impressive and very, very Japanese. Fish, rice, miso, pickles, tofu and the odd bit of veg. Lovely.

The other major difference between a Ryokan and a hotel is that the baths/showers are shared. Now, before visions of school showers or camping pop into your head I should probably say that the baths are shared but private. The Ryokan has 3 and each one consists of a really very hot mineral bath, an area to clean yourself and a vanity mirror. In Japan the tradition is to clean yourself thoroughly and then get into the bath which is purely for relaxing purposes. And very relaxing it was too. There is nothing that soothes a long train journey and a heavy dinner than a nice hot bath. Particularly one that stays hot and is run by someone else for you. 

But who needed hotel baths when we were in an onsen town! Well we avoided the onsen experience on our first night but the next day we got up bright and early, ate breakfast in the ryokan, had a bath and then got dressed to go out and, what else, have another bath. 

I must say it’s a holiday idea I could get used to. Get up, eat have a bath, get dressed, go for a wander, have another bath, eat a delicious crab sandwich, have yet another bath, wander back to the ryokan to play some board games and eat a fantastic meal then get dressed up to hit the town and have…yet another bath. 

To some people that may sound like the most boring itinerary on earth but it is incredibly relaxing. Rather than a hectic sightseeing holiday it is a properly relaxing break from work. I cannot recommend it enough. Even then some of you are thinking “a bath may be all well and good but four in one day?” Surely that’s boring. Well it might be but the trick is that in onsen you take sort but frequent baths in different places. Onsen are hot, really, very hot. Much hotter than you’re thinking I assure you. Being in them is a wonderful experience but after a short while it becomes too much to bear. So you get out, cool down and dry off. And then have a short walk to a different bath which offers a different view. The short but frequent baths all add up throughout the day until by the evening your limbs feel like spaghetti wobbling in the breeze. 

Fran and I hit four different baths out of the seven that Kinosaki has to offer.

Ichi-no-yu
This was a “cave bath”. Basically a rotemburo (or outdoor bath) set into some rock so that it has a roof. It was lovely, not too hot and very atmospheric.

Kou-no-yu
Set quite far away from the others up the mountain somewhat but closer to the natural hot springs. A lovely rotemburo in a relaxing setting with birdsong and other natural features to help relax you.

Gosho-no-yu
Fran and mine’s favourite. Decorated to look like the imperial palace in Kyoto this has a two story rotemburo that is excellent. A perfect temperature and a wonderful setting. It also has a steam room and a kind of stone chair heated by hot water to help vary the experience a bit.

Sato-no-yu
The fanciest and most impressive of all the baths. The onsen is split into two sides, one of which is themed after a Turkish bath and the other which is traditionally Japanese. Which gender can use which bath switches daily. I had the Mediterranean and Fran the Japanese. With the exception of a massaging shower in the Turkish bath (which was lovely) and a penguin sauna in the Japanese one (a kind of walk in freezer which was mostly just cold and not very pleasant in Fran’s opinion) the features are the same on both sides. An indoor bath, a jacuzzi, a bath with powerful massaging jets, a rotemburo, a sauna, two steam rooms and a few showers. We stayed in this bath longer than any other moving hot to cold, hot to cold, steam to shower to bath. It was really invigorating and the best of the lot. The only points off are for the slightly cheesy theme.

Finally the major appeal of the town was experiencing something so very Japanese. The town was not brimming with people but it had a decent crowd there. In fact it had just enough people, not so many that it felt crowded and people got in your way but not so few that it felt quiet and desolate. Instead there was a constant feeling of lots of couples doing exactly as you were. Eating when you were, bathing when you were (but at enough different baths that they never felt full) and finally getting togged up in the evening in Yukata and Geta and hitting the town. 

Yes, here I am. 

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kinosaki at night (beyond take another bath) but one thing it does offer is really ancient arcades full of pachinko machines that appear to pre-date world war two. 

Pachinko, for those not in the know, is a kind of Japanese fruit machine/pinball hybrid. You buy a set of balls and feed them into a machine. The balls fall down the machine and into slots. Depending on the value of the slots you get more balls back. The idea is to get more balls than you started with. You then exchange these balls for a “prize” and then immediately exchange the prize for cash (a way to get around Japan’s ban on gambling). Theoretically there is some kind of skill element but Fran and I had no idea how that was meant to work. It all looked like a load of balls to us. 

Disenchanted by Pachinko we had a go at a popgun game which was ludicrously easy. The idea is to use a cork firing gun to knock over some statues. However despite looking like a rifle you hold it in one hand and can lean as close to the statues as you like. Being a mutant gaijin I used my gibbon like arms to reach over about 6 inches from each of the statues. I thus got a perfect 10 out of 10. I figured this was just pathetically easy but I felt significantly happier when I noticed the small crowd of onlookers who were amazed by my accuracy and when Fran missed three times. We won a flute by the way, which Fran won’t let me play. 

More than the games though simply the atmosphere of being there, at night, by a river lined with willows and lit by lanterns dressed in Yukata and surrounded by other people all dressed the same. Hearing the clip clop of geta on the road and the laughs of young couples. It was like being transported to another world entirely, of traveling back in time. And nothing intruded to spoil the moment, no cars or bars or other noisy reminders of the modern world. 

There was only one downside to the experience and that was cost. Our Ryokan set us back a cool 90,000Yen. About 450 pounds each for our two night stay. However this did include entrance to all the baths, our food, towels, our Yukata, etc, etc so basically this price accounted for the entire vacation. And anyone I only mention this for the sake of being complete as I am of the opinion that it represents good value for money. It was pure bliss and it stands out as one of the best experiences I have had in Japan

So this blog appears to be developing a theme as yet again male nudity forms the basis of most of my post.

First up here’s a video I made at James’ recent cheese and wine party. I was attempting to record James and Adam playing some Enka (Japanese country music) and I did, however at first I got side tracked by a long conversation about Drew’s nipples.

Enjoy!

Secondly I’m not sure if this will work but my friend Kate put together a fantastic video of the Naked Man Festival that reallty brings the whole event to life. You can watch it here . However I’m not sure that link will work. If it doesn’t please comment on this thread and I’ll see if I can get the real video from Kate.

In other news today was the “farewell party” for my san-nensei. Basically a special assembley with videos, the brass band playing, the choir club singing and lots and lots of photos of the san-nensei. It was unlike most Japanese assembley type activities in that it was pretty fun and interesting. The photos in particular were hilarious and it was really cool to see what my kids looked like before they were my kids.

There were also a couple of photos of me in the display too which all drew big laughs from the kids. I’m not sure I know what’s so funny though.

The best part of the day was chatting with some of the san-nensei afterwards. In particular one girl who I’ve got to know really well from the letters we’ve being exchanging. She hasn’t sent me any for a couple of weeks now due to her exams but today she gave me a last letter and next week when they have the more formal graduation ceremony I’ll give her my last letter. I copied all her letters to me today and it’s a really fantastic souveneir of my first year and something I’ll keep forever.

She also gave me an actual souveneir; a phone charm from Kyoto of two frogs. Apparently it keeps couples together and stops you being in a car accident. So now I can finally get my driver’s license!

This would be the rewarding part of teaching. Connecting with and inspiring people.

The un-rewarding part is stopping boys from reading manga every time we go in the library. “Yes I know Black Jack is a cool series but this is an English lesson not a manga lesson.”

I did like the one boy who was meant to be researching Thomas Edison and was in fact reading a samurai manga. When I asked him what he was doing he looked at me with a totally straight face and pointed at a samurai and said “Edison.” Then he pointed at a girl on the page and said “Edison’s girlfriend.” When I flipped a page and pointed at a demon he pointed at it and said “lightbulb.” Massive props to this kid, if you’re going to dick aroudn in my lessons the least you could do is make me laugh whilst you’re doing it.

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.

Bliss!

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.

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