Okayama is the prefecture pretty much directly north of Kagawa, and it’s famous for a few things. Peaches, and the legend of Momotaro (Peach Boy) are the most noteworthy, but my particular favourite is the Naked Man Festival.
This festival is held once a year in February, so midmorning on Saturday February 18, Justin, Jon, Ben and I loaded up Justin’s car and headed north, giving the boys a chance to load up on road trip Maccas first.
The festival doesn’t kick off until the evening, so our first stop was the Kirin Beer Park, with a short ramen lunch break first.
I’ve seen a fair few breweries in my time, but the chance to take a tour entirely in Japanese sounded too funny to miss. There was also the promise of a free afternoon beer to lure me in, but that was just a bonus.
As Justin was driving, he was lucky enough to wear a big, dorky badge announcing that he wasn’t allowed to drink, but the rest of us had a couple of beers and thoroughly enjoyed the drunken Japanese man trying to make friends by using all the dirty words he knew in English.
The afternoon beers had the additional benefit of convincing Ben that he definitely wanted to participate, or ‘run’ in the festival. He had previously been wavering because of the steady snow outside, but with a few beers in him, he declared that he certainly would be taking off all his clothes and running around a temple with thousands of other men.
We drove into Okayama city to kill a bit more time and so Justin could look for a toy he couldn’t find in Takamatsu. I bought some bright red, heart shaped sunglasses to spite the persistent snow, and insisted on wearing them the whole way to Sadaiji, where the festival is held.
When we arrived in the small city just outside Okayama, it was packed. We managed to find parking a short walk from the temple and after dropping Ben and Justin in the changing tents, Jon and I went to enjoy the festival.
There were stunning fireworks that lasted for ages, there were food stalls with some of the best matsuri food I had seen in ages and there was hot sake. Jon and I availed ourselves of all of these then met up with Jon’s friend Will, and Mike and his dad, and got ourselves in position to watch the running.
The participants (men only) run in circles around this temple for about two hours, through the sacred pool, up to the shrines and repeat. It was a bit mad, but I guess it is the only way for them to stay warm as they were only wearing little tabi (toe sock-shoes) and fundoshii (sumo wrestler diapers).
Around 9pm, they started filing up onto the stage-like part of the temple. Slowly the stage was filled with sweaty men jostling for space and preparing themselves to fight for holy sticks about the size of drumsticks.
The idea is that someone upstairs in the temple throws a few of these sticks into the crowd and the men try to grab one and make it out of the temple grounds. If you can make it out (alive) with the stick, you will be blessed with good fortune and a hefty cash prize.
To get out however, you need to fight a few thousand sweaty, mostly naked men who are all desperate to get their hands on that stick.
It is not uncommon for people to die, either by being pushed off the edge of the temple or crushed by the uncontrollable crowd, or by being attacked while holding the stick. No person with tattoos is allowed to run in this festival, the idea being that tattoos are most prevalent amoung yakuza (Japanese mafia) who, in the past, have allegedly smuggled weapons into the festival (yes, in their fundoshii) to ensure they win the stick.
With that in mind, I was very glad that Ben and Justin were both decent sized guys, safely far away from the edge, and not harbouring any serious ambitions of winning the stick.
We were only there for the experience, but I guess for some people it’s quite a serious event and there was a very tense anticipation in the crowd which made it all quite exciting.
I obviously couldn’t see the sticks, but I could kind of follow the progress by watching where the epicentre of the mob was moving. There was no big announcement of the winner at the end, so it was all a little anticlimactic as the runners and the spectators began to mingle again, but I could almost feel the atmosphere change as everyone relaxed (and suddenly realised they were freezing).
We had thought about staying in Okayama for the night, but there was a party going on in Tak that I was quite keen to join later, and Mike and his dad (who had just flown in from the US that morning) were exhausted, so when Ben and Justin had reclothed, we got back in the car and headed back to Tak via McDonalds.
I had a great time, but (and I never thought I’d say this) I think I’ve seen enough bums to last me a while.