Posted by mracine on October 24, 2014
February 16, 2014
Written by Mark
“Not, again” I thought as my body was being crushed on a wooden beam. My arms were pinned down to my sides. I forgot to keep my arms up; a rookie mistake. The sweat streamed down my face from the heat of all the bodies. The crowd surged again and pushed me helplessly in one direction and then another. There were screams coming from all around and people accidentally touching parts of my body which made me more than a little bit uncomfortable. This was the Naked Men’s festival and I was in the middle of it.
I got up that day preparing for what was to come ahead. I put on my coat, gloves, and hat, kissed my wife goodbye, and left my apartment. I lived only two train stops from Sadaiji station, where the event took place. However, I took the train in the opposite direction towards Okayama Station. The Naked Man Festival was totally new to me. I needed help from a group of pros.
I arrived at Okayama station. I pulled out my cell phone and call my friend, Justin. He was crazy enough to do the festival with me. We met at the south side of the Station. This is where we would board a bus that would take us to Naked Men. We were early and the buses weren’t there yet. There were a few other foreigners there, but not much more than usual. We went to the McDonald’s trying to build up stores of fat on our bodies. We’d need them to keep warm later.
When we finished eating, we went back to where the buses would be. There were several empty buses waiting to be loaded. A few groups of foreigners were walking around. I assumed that they were waiting for the go ahead to get on the bus.
As I looked around, I noticed two groups of people filming some of the foreigners there. And of course, those foreigners were hamming it up for the camera. Typical… Justin jokingly said that we should try to be on camera too. I took the joke seriously and we made our way in front of one of the cameras. I really hammed it up, too.
Finally, the person leading the foreigner’s bus called for us to get on. We all climbed aboard. A camera crew also joined us on the bus. Apparently, they were going to film the whole trip. Our group leader did this event several times before. He told us the rules and what we should watch for. “Keep your arms up while you’re in the crowd. If they go down, you won’t be able to brace yourself when you fall and it’ll be hard to put them back up. Be careful of the steps. They are made of stones and they’ll hurt if you fall on them. Stay away from the pillars, they don’t flex as much as your bones. Make way for any people in dark clothes. They are emergency personnel and they’ll be getting hurt people away from the crowd.”
Then the leader of our group got to the heart of the matter. “We will be going for the shingi, a magical stick of incense that can be traded for lots of cash. This is what you want. There are also other sticks thrown but can’t be traded in for money. However, they are extremely good luck and you should go after those as well. If you get a stick, don’t let it go, hide it (who knows where?), and make your way out the temple area.”
While we weren’t organized enough as a group to work together, the general consensus was to help and protect each other. “Oh,” the leader added, “if you see a Japanese person with yakuza like tattoos with a stick, let them keep it.”
The bus took us from Okayama bus station to Sadaiji bus station. While it clearly states in the rules that you shouldn’t drink before participating in the festival, this didn’t deter most from drinking on the bus. I confess, I took a few sips from a bottle as well.
It was dark outside when we arrived. We all got off the bus and followed the leader from the bus station to the temple. It was about one fifth of a mile away and people greeted and cheered us on the way to the tents.
If you participate you don’t really get to enjoy the other parts of the festival. There were people performing for crowds and lots of festival foods. There were things to do and see but we were just herded straight to our tent.
At our designated tent, we paid our entrance and clothing fees. The clothing consisted of tabbies so thin that socks would have been better and a fundoshi, just a long strip of cloth; that’s it. We went into the tent to change. The tent was large and people claimed their area to change. In the center of the tent was an old man and woman. These two volunteers were the skilled helpers that help you get dressed properly.
I took off my coat, hat, gloves, sweater, shirt, undershirt, pants, underwear, socks, and shoes. I put them in a bag provided and made my way into the line to have my fundoshi put on. I guess I‘ve been to enough onsens to not feel awkward being nude around others. Then again there was an old lady in the tent with a smile on her face like it was her birthday or something.
The old lady instructed me to hold one end of the cloth while she started wrapping it around my body. At that time, the camera crew joined us in the tent. Onsens be damned! It was a hell of an awkward situation. I was getting interviewed being mostly naked while and old lady played grab ass.
With the fundoshi wrapped around my body, the old man helped secured it in place by giving me an atomic wedgie. We were told to use the colored electrical tape to secure our tabbies from falling off our feet. I wrapped them around my leg, then decided to decorate my arms and hands with red, white, and blue tape. Got to represent America!
So there we stood in the freezing tent while we waited for our turn in the festival. We were cold, so cold. I decided I needed more food to eat. McD’s didn’t cut it. Especially after having a few drinks.
I grabbed some money and snuck out of the tent. There were specially roped off areas that people weren’t allowed to cross. It’s to keep onlookers and participants separated. I ignored the rules, jumped the rope, and queued behind the first food line. It was a little awkward being mostly nude while everyone else around was not. I grabbed some hot udon and chugged it down.
I made my way back to the tent. It was about time to line up. The leader had us in columns of four. I was in one of the middle columns in the middle of the pack. We put our arms over each other’s necks and started to shout “Get the shingi!” over and over again.
Our group followed other groups into the temple area. They had the temple set up so participants made several loops around the area. The first stop was the cleansing pool.
It was about three to four feet deep and filled with freezing water. The water didn’t have ice in it or anything like that, but I would like to point out that I was wearing a coat and several layers of clothes when it was warmer in the day. Without hesitation we headed into the water. Each step splashed cold drops of water onto everyone. It didn’t help that people inside our group were using their hands to splash each other while we walked through the water.
By the time we got out, I was totally soaked. We marched up to the temple where the shingi would be thrown. We continued around the temple to the shrine. I suppose we were to say our prayers or something to that effect, but I’m not sure. We continued our way over a tiny bridge where the gathering people could see us.
We went to where we had entered, and to my horror, we were making another lap around the temple. Next stop, cleansing pool. Again, I got soaked. At the end of that loop, we did another lap. The nice thing about the third trip to the cleansing pool was that by then I was too numb to feel much of anything.
After the third lap, we were allowed to place ourselves where we thought the shingi would be thrown. I went up the stone steps and found a place on the platform. The area was well lit from above.
I could see the window where the sticks would be thrown. I couldn’t get too close though. There were about a few thousand people blocking my way. Other people got behind me and pushed me a little forward. Then more people got behind them and pushed them forward as well. I was still feeling cold but the bodies surrounding me at least blocked the wind.
We stood there on the platform. People crowded together, tightly packed like a tin of sardines. My arms got sore from keeping them up. It was getting warmer from all the body heat. I was starting to get my body temperature up when a head popped out a window from above.
I was really excited. This is it. A Buddhist priest looked at the pile of people from level above. He ducked his head back in and reached for something. He threw it down on us and…. I was wet again. The priest continued to throw ladles full of cold water for a while and then left us to enjoy our moistness.
I was standing there tired, wet, and ready for this to be over. Then it happened. The crowd moved a little to the right, then a little to the left. Then it moved some to the front and some to the back. There were pushing and shoving. I guess everyone was trying to get the best spots possible but this was dangerous. We were on a platform with steps at the edges. The crowd moved even farther right, maybe two or three feet. Then three feet to the left. The crowd pushed forward and then back. So far back I had to put my foot on the top step. This was getting insane.
Over and over again, they were pushing. Each time, some people got knocked off the platform and fell onto the steps. Usually only a few. The people on the steps pushed and held the people above them. Then, the first great fall happened. I was in the middle of it. The push forward was strong and the response was even greater. I felt and heard the people behind me not getting the footing they needed to keep from falling. First a few people fell. But as the bodies lay on the stone steps, people in front of them lost their footing too. Like dominoes, people started to fall.
Without the resistance from the fallen people, the crowd from the front pushed twice as hard. I tripped over legs. I would have smashed my head and broken my shins if it weren’t for the kind people who I landed on. I tried my best to get off these poor men as fast as I could, but I too had people on top of me.
I got up and made a stupid decision. I chose to stay. I moved in closer to one of the pillars. You know, the pillars I was told to stay away from. For the most part, the pillar acted as brace and shield from the moving crowd. Every once in a while the crowd would push just right and pin me to the pillar. Between the press of bodies and an unmovable pillar, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. That proved to be very uncomfortable.
I again, tried to move closer to the window where the shingi would be thrown. Again the window had a priest throwing water. It came as a blessing now. Steam would rise as soon as it hit the throng of people swaying below. Two more times I fell onto the steps. Luck stayed with me because I was never on the bottom of the pile.
The time was getting near. There were more priest by the window. They were about to throw something other than water. The crowd cheered and yelled and jostled for position. There was a fever running through the people.
I looked up at the window ready for the sticks to be thrown. I was ready. This was it this time. I could see the sticks in the hands of the priests. I could see the smoke from the incense stick known as the shingi. I could hear many voices in the crowd screaming “Get the shingi!” I was screaming with them as well. Then… Then, darkness. The lights were cut off. The sticks were thrown and the crowd moved in many directions at once.
To be honest, I have no idea where the sticks were thrown. I don’t know how one gets out of the mass of people with any of the sticks in his hands. I couldn’t see what was going on. I could hear and see people pushing, shoving, and grabbing. What I couldn’t see, were any of the sticks. However, I could smell the shingi. It was everywhere.
The crowd didn’t sway as before. People knew where the shingi was and move towards it. The people with the shingi couldn’t push their way out. Thousands of people stood gridlocked on the platform. Then, strangely the crowd moved to the right. I’m not sure what happened but somehow the sticks must have been passed around.
People were frantically sniffing the air. “Did the shingi go to the right? Or did it go to the left?” It’s hard to tell. It was like this for four or five minutes. Then the crowd started to slowly disperse.
I wasn’t sure when or how the sticks got out, but like everyone else, I supposed that it did. I left the steps and started walking back to the tents. I was tired and a little disappointed that I didn’t even get a chance to touch one of the sticks. As I was leaving I saw a group of people gathered. I went to investigate.
To my surprise, eight or more men were grabbing onto a stick. I jumped into the group. I stuck my hand in and touched their hands. I gripped tighter, trying to get a hold on this stick. One or two people were ripped away and I got a hold of the stick. Twisting and turning, I got a better hold. I was so close.
I pulled and yanked. There were still many people surrounding us but only four guys and me had our hands on the stick. I pulled and pulled and pulled. Until, damn it. It slipped from my fingers and I fell.
I got up. The group of people who were fighting for the stick suddenly stopped. They all started walking away from the area, empty-handed and in different directions. “What just happened?” I wondered making my own way back to the tents.
Later, I think I figured it out. The last four were a group working together. When I fell, one of them pocketed (where?) it and they all walked away.
I got to the changing tent. Not one stick was gotten by anyone from our group. The group leader was bouncing around happy because he at least got to hold the shingi. He went around letting people smell his hand which reeked of incense.
I took off my muddy loin cloth and got dressed. I was thankful to be in warm clothes again. I went back to the shrine looking for my wife. Most of the crowd was gone by then. When I found her, I asked her what she thought of the event where I stood outside in the freezing night mostly naked and wet. She complained to me how cold she was watching. We got into our car and went home.
How to get there:
You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.
Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.
- Emergency Numbers:
- Police 110
- Ambulance and Fire 119
- Important phone numbers to know while in Japan
- Comfort Woman
- The Commoner
- Empire of the Sun
- Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
- Geisha, a Life
- Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission
- The Last Concubine
- Memoirs of a Geisha
- Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath
- Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
- Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan. Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
- InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank to ask whatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
- ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
- The Post Office bank seems to work with the most international cards.
- You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan; I’ve never been a tourist here.)
Naken Men’s Festival
- Kinryozan Saidaiji 086-942-2058
- 500 yen
- 3rd Saturday in February
- regular hours – 9:00 ~ 16:00
- This festival is held during the coldest month of the year.