Japan can have a pretty frigid winter, tending to be at its coldest around February. That is when the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) is held, up in Hokkaido. Giant statues are made out of snow and ice and left on the roads around the city for a couple of weeks. So it seemed like a perfect time for Japan to also hold one of their strangest events of the year – the Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Man Festival.
I joined a group of foreigners who headed down to check it out. Due to its outlandish nature, it’s one of the festivals which have become quite popular with the foreign population. One of those “only in Japan” things. There are several of these throughout Japan, but we went to the one in Saidai-ji, Okayama.
The main event takes place at around 11pm, but participants are welcome to change into their outfits at any point during the day. On our arrival, we saw many men walking around dressed only in “fundoshi”, a type of bandage that is wrapped around the waist and between the legs to look similar to a cloth nappy. As they walked between the crowds who were dressed for the weather in jackets, scarfs, hats and gloves, the only way to keep warm was the time-honoured method of getting good and drunk.
Personally, we decided to do it the other way around, and got good and drunk well before changing. At about 10pm, it was time to get naked. I went into one of the bare canvas tents dotted about the place reserved for the purpose, and got my kit off. Then it was a matter of standing around in the cold, naked, holding my rolled fundoshi, waiting in line for one of the professional fundoshi putter-onners to do his thing. Since it’s only a strip of cloth, and you don’t want it falling off during the night’s revelry, it pays to have it on good and tight. This requires a strength which means you are unable to do it yourself. So I stood, naked in the cold, waiting until it was my turn. I eventually got to the front of the queue, where a tired old man grunted at me and held out his hand. I gave him the fundoshi, then underwent the strange experience of having an old Japanese man tailor a nappy for me, complete with the final stages of folding it between the legs, and yanking it tight from behind with a force that was enough to lift me off the ground, just a little.
With bandage rammed into places that felt totally unnatural, I was ready to emerge from the tent and mix with the crowd. There were so many naked men around by this stage that being one of them didn’t feel all that weird (I also have become somewhat used to the feeling thanks to the public open naked communal baths which are so common here). Feeling nicely toasted with cheap sake, we bounded about the crowds, joining the communal chant of “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!”, and holding each other for dear warmth.
The official run started, and with arms on shoulders, we joined the ranks of people entering the temple complex. A run around the perimeter, followed by splashing through a waist-deep pool of holy water (plenty enough to soak the fundoshi), then off for a quick pray to the temple deity, and into the wall-less temple itself. This was the gathering point, and as the hour wore on, more and more wet, cold, naked men poured into the temple. The ultimate goal of the night was to be one of the receivers of two “shingi”, which would be dropped from the ceiling by an official into the centre of the crowd. The receiver of the shingi, or basically “lucky stick”, would have good luck for the following year (and a tidy tangible, financial reward).
The surging crowd of naked men became bigger and bigger, and tighter and tighter, swaying violently from side to side as everyone tried to get into the centre (and as drunken larrikins tried to push the crowd about just for fun). Men with their bodies covered in bandages (to hide tattoos), and black fundoshi as opposed to the white of everyone else, were easily recognisable as yakuza (Japanese mafia) members. They were also joining the melee. Everyone had their arms raised directly above their own head, as putting them off to the side would more likely than not result in them being snapped clean off. The reason for having the fundoshi rammed so dearly into the recesses of my anus became clear. Despite the cold, the sheer volume of body heat, combined with the alcohol, was making people sweat profusely. The crowd would sometimes take a sudden surge to the side, meaning a desperate attempt to stay on your feet, and avoid the steps on all sides leading up to the temple itself. Announcements were regularly made at approximately four-minute intervals to make way for the ambulance teams who came in, led by a giant stick, to take out incapacitated individuals to the hearty cheers of the crowd. Apparently someone died two years ago.
After bearing out the battle for some twenty minutes, and being separated from my friends, I decided I didn’t want my lucky stick that badly, and made my way out of the fray. I found my friends waiting for me outside, and we watched from the bottom of the steps as the mass at the top swayed and surged for the next 30 minutes, being punctuated with spills down the side and frequent ambulance teams. My toes froze off. Inside the temple, the heat had gotten to the point where the wall of steam rising from the men was all that was visible. With the light shining on it, it was simply a white wall that was completely impenetrable to the human eye.
Then, midnight struck. The lights were turned off and the sticks dropped. Frantic, frantic scurrying commenced, as well no end of fighting, unseen from the outside due to the wall of steam and the lack of lights. All we could see was the people unlucky enough to be on the edge tumbling down the steps in greater numbers. Eventually someone must have escaped from the horde with the sticks amongst all the confusion, and delivered them to the officials, as the contest was officially declared over. The crowd started to thin, and people limped away.
Suddenly, with the adrenaline and the mass of body heat gone, everyone, myself included, realised just how cold it was to stand outside naked in winter, and hobbled off to become once again embraced in the warmth of civilised clothing.