Thousands of Miles from Home


Journey to Saidaiji

Numerous towns, districts, or cities occasionally have interesting or exciting celebrations. Perhaps they will throw a parade everyone once in a while, or show an open-air movie in the park. Free popcorn, bring the kids! In the case of Saidaiji, Okayama, thralls of men (of various intoxication levels) gather and strip down for the annual Hadaka Matsuri, or "Naked Festival," held at the local temple. With the ultimate goal of being able to touch one of the two sacred sticks (shingi) thrown into the teeming crowd by the temple priest (who also douses the crowd in cold water), the men gather in groups of 10-30 to run around a preset course shouting "Washoi, washoi, washoi!" From what I could tell, "washoi" would be the japanese equivalent of "heave, ho!" oft spoken by pirates and other naval folk. For over 400 years, men have gathered to celebrate this momentous occasion.

I left home around 7 in the evening and met Tamano high school's english teacher (eigo no sensei) on the train to Okayama. His friend gave us a ride the short distance from Okayama city to Saidaiji, where thousands of people had gathered to witness the spectacle. Neil and Jez, the other english teachers from Tamano, had decided to join the other gaijin and participate in this historic festival. I met them at the changing booth. For about 10 seconds I gave serious thought to participating in the festival as well, but the story of the exchange student from Tamano who was seriously injured came rushing back to me. You could say I was a wimp, but who wants to spend the rest of their Japanese exchange in a full body cast?

To be honest, the festival isn't performed completely naked. Instead, the participants don a "fundoshi," or modest loincloth made from either 10 or 20 foot rolls of cloth (I hear purchasing the 20 foot roll is totally worth the expense). In a large tent, certified japanese fundoshi vendors give the appropriate "atomic wedgie" to keep the cloth from falling off once the festival begins. Then it is off to the temple where between the hours of 10 and midnight hundreds of men run laps in the freezing mid-winter weather, all the while chanting "washoi, washoi, WASHOI!"

Towards midnight, the men begin to gather on the steps and "porch" of the temple. Priests dump freezing water on the crowd, which is quickly warmed to a misty steam which lingers above the chanting men. Men try to push their way up the stairs; often causing whole bunches of fundoshi clad guys tumbling down the stairs. I witnessed quite a few punches to the face, pulling of fundoshi, and a ton of shoving.

When talking to Japanese people about Hadaka Matsuri, they often describe it as what they believe hell would be like. Indeed, after reviewing the newspaper the following day, the picture outside the temple depicting hundreds of men with the groping arms reached toward the sky certainly reminded me of something hellish (and awesome). At the stroke of midnight, yells reaching a feverish pace, the lights were cut and the two "shingi" were thrown to the waiting mass. Just like the bottom of the 9th, two outs with the bases loaded, the crowd went wild. Neil later told me that you had to breathe out and then in again quickly or your chest would get compressed with the force of everyone around you. Once someone had finally claimed the sticks police tried to escort the men from the temple. Some fights erupted (which I hear is completely normal) as hundreds of men were led back to their changing room.

Following the festival, I had planned to stay at a friend's house in Osafune, a close distance from Saidaiji. Neil and I walked to Saidaiji station to find a taxi, striking up plenty of conversations with Japanese people along the way. We almost convinced a group of people to drive us all the way to Osafune but they said they were going in the other direction.

At three in the morning, the taxi driver dropped us off at Osafune eki, in the proverbial "middle of nowhere." The taxi driver must have though we were crazy but accepted his fare and drove away. Surprisingly, it was a wonderful night and an easy walk to Neil's friend's house. Her name is Leis (from England), and has taught english in japan for 2 years. At her house were 5 other english teachers from England and the U.S. A party ensued.

The next morning, Neil and I snuck out early to catch a train back to Tamano. Osafune is a beautiful part of Japan, which had just seemed sort of spooky the evening before. Mountains rise from the rice fields in the distance, and we stopped at a small grocery store to purchase some drinks for the road. Walking in the early morning along the country road, drinking my tea with Neil gave me a great feeling and a promised myself I'd do more exploring on my own in the future.

We came to the Osafune station just in time, and ran to catch the train. Unfortunately, at a junction after Okayama station we had a wait of 50 minutes before the next trail. Neil and I walked around Chyamachi station, subsequently finding a small pizza shop that happened to be open. Perhaps it was because we were starving, or it could have been the massive chunks of ham, but it was the best pizza I've eaten in Japan.

I stumbled home around 12, eager to tell me family all about the excellent night. They were happy I hadn't killed myself, so everyone came away a winner.

Check out the craziness on the video page


  • I believe those were actually not large blocks of ham but blocks of bacon.

    Yes... mmmmm.... bacon.

    By neil, at 3:09 AM  

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