It must have been a few days after my birthday that Dave sent me the e mail, because I was still recovering from our trip to Tokyo. I opened it up and scanned over the text saying, “We have to go to this,” and then clicked on the hyperlink that followed. The article that popped up blew my mind. Apparently the third Saturday in February is famous all over Japan for the Hadaka Matsuri, roughly translating to “Naked Man Festival.” A town that boarders Hiroshima named Okayama, plays host to roughly 9,000 participants every year with ever more spectators. The basic idea is to get dressed up in a loincloth and cotton socks, run through freezing cold water, and then try your best to catch one of about 30 lucky wooden sticks called “shingi” without getting killed. Last year some one died from “complication” after getting trampled in the mosh pit of people grabbing for a shingi.
It took me about ten minutes to decide I was going to participate instead of just watch. Then it took another 2 weeks of pushing, teasing, and name calling before I convinced Dave that experiencing the worst shrinkage of his life would be worth the memory. So after some careful planning and budgeting we jumped on a train headed for Okayama on the morning of February 16th.
(Emperors new clothes)
It took about five and a half hours just to get to Okayama station, another thirty minutes to check into our hotel, and thirty more minutes to grab a quick bowl a ramen. Due to a late start and we barely caught our bus, but when we arrived at the event at 9:30 PM we found out our group may have jumped the gun a bit. The shingi wouldn’t be thrown until midnight but we were all wrapped up in our man thongs before 10. We stood around in the dressing tents while other guys from the group ran to the shrine, through the water, to the temple, and then back. For the first hour they were fine, but as their beer shields began to fade they started to complain. By the time we were suppose to make the final push at 11:30 most people wouldn’t shut up about how cold it was.
(Dave gets the wegie of a life time)
(Our new friend told us we had to take this picture. )
The circuit is simple. First you run from the main street, over a bridge, through a gate into the temple grounds. There is a large raised platform, the size of a basketball court, overflowing with people. Once inside the temple grounds you turn to the right, climb up a small flight of stairs, pass through a tori gate, and make a horseshoe run through waist deep freezing water. After you emerge from the water you huddle together and head behind the raised platform to another set of stairs. These lead up to the section of the temple where you pray. Back down the steps and completing a full circle of the temple you come to a stop at the base of the platform. This is where the battle will begin.
Climbing up the steps is simple enough, but to make your way into the throng of crazed Japanese men all vying for a chance to catch one of the small shingi or the possibility of grabbing what I like to refer to as the “mega ultra shingi,” is no simple matter. The small shingi are about the size of a 10-inch wooden ruler, while the mega ultra shingi resembles an oversized baseball bat and apparently is worth $10,000. If you get your hands on a small shingi you still have to fight your way out of the crowd and I mean fight in a very literal way. If you are some how lucky enough (maybe un-lucky is the right word) to catch the mega ultra shingi, and you did not come with a rough and tumble posse ready to throw down, then you are in for a world of hurt.
I consider myself lucky to have left the Platform of Doom without a scratch on me. Some other foreigners I encountered on my way back were not so lucky. Two guys I met from Iowa fell down and were trampled. When I saw them in the tent they both had road burn on their ass cheeks and were shaking with fear. The following is a direct quote “I have never been that close to death in my life. I though my life was over. I am not cool right now man, I am not cool.”
We boarded the busses back to town around 1:30 and got back to our hotel just before 2:00. Even though we were exhausted from the days activities, we decided it wouldn’t be a real weekend without an after party. So after a quick Italian shower and some cleaning up we spent the next hour searching for “Friends Bar,” the first Canadian bar I have ever been to. After a map with horrible directions and several Japanese people steering us in giant circles, we found ourselves in a bar with about 100 other foreigners, a dance party, a dog, and an all you can drink special. Just as the evening was starting to look up the sound system died and we headed back to the hotel for 4 hours rest before catching a train back home at 10:30.
This is probably the only time I’ll be a part of this festival. It was far too much standing around and waiting, and the danger on the platform felt very real. As scary as it was at times it was definitely worth it. One more Japanese experience to put in the books/blog.