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Saidaiji Eyo (The Naked Man Festival), is held in Okayama on the third Saturday of February, Japan’s coldest month. That the Japanese do not have a more than thousand year history of Christianity may account for an open-minded and enlightened attitude with regard to all things corporeal: Certainly there is nothing I’m aware of in North America or Europe that compares with The Naked Man Festival! Take a look at the videos and you will see what I mean.
My friend and fellow ALT, Nathan has now participated in three, or possibly four Saidaiji Eyo Festivals and is a huge enthusiast. ALTs from around Japan (at least one of whom has come from as far away as Hokkaido to compete), rely on Nate to have things organized. I admire their gung-ho enthusiasm but must admit, I also find it a bit mystifying. The appeal of running around virtually naked during the coldest month of the year (and being drenched with ice-cold water) is kinda lost on me. I don’t much like the cold and neither would I feel entirely comfortable jammed like sardines in a can, with more than 9,000 virtually naked men. Hey; to each his own though! Without exception, every ALT I know who has entered says it was a great experience. I may try it in 2015!
Although I’d intended to write more about the actual experience, there seems to be no need as the below article by Okayama Jet pretty much sums it up:
This is not a tame Japanese festival – serious injury is possible and there have been fatalities in the past.
First of all, tattoos are not allowed. This is the temple’s rule and is due to the heavy presence of yakuza in years past. Nowadays there are about 3,000 volunteer police who line the streets outside the event in an effort to eliminate any yakuza presence. That said, many yakuza still get in by covering their tattoos with rather bold applications of bandages and sometimes even “liquid latex” (fake skin). If you have a tattoo but want to attend, you are welcome to try taping a bandage over it, but be aware that you may be yanked out and asked to leave if your tattoo is spotted. In the last several years we have had people with tattoos go in with bandages on and they have been fine, but there are no guarantees. One thing to note, though – if by some chance you get the “dai shingi” but have a tattoo, you will “not be lucky” according to the rules of the event.
GLASSES / PIERCINGS
Will need to be left in the changing tents. You cannot wear glasses into the temple area (and you wouldn’t want to) in likely case that they would get knocked off and become a hazard beneath people’s feet. Similarly, any jewelry should be removed including piercings – anything that could be ripped out.
Particiants will need around 1,000 – 2,000 yen in order to purchase a “fundoshi” (loincloth) and a pair of “tabi” (split toed socks). These can be purchased from various tables around the festival area along with tape, which you will also want. You will need at least one roll of strong, cloth-type tape per group. More on that in a bit. The fundoshi is just a long, white roll of cloth. You don’t need to know how to put one on, there will be people to help you with that inside the changing tents. You can reuse a fundoshi from previous years.
Once you have your fundoshi, tabi and tape, head to one of the changing tents. There are several spread around and generally they cost 500 – 1,000 yen to use. When you pay you’ll be given a clear plastic bag for your clothes and a numbered tag with two halves. One half goes in the bag with your stuff, the other gets tucked into your fundoshi so that they can locate your stuff if anything happens to you. Although many people are worried about theft, there are always ‘minders’ present inside the tents, and to date no one has had anything stolen. If you are really worried about theft, please consider taking the bus and leaving your valuables on there, since the drivers will stay with the buses throughout the event.
In some of the changing areas there will be old women in the changing tents. They are staff and supposedly they have “seen it all”. Go ahead and strip off, put your stuff in your bag, grab half your tag and locate either one of the old women or one of the men who will probably have a line of people waiting to wrap your fundoshi on properly. Be aware that these thing go on… tight. Prepare to have your testicles snugged back to places they haven’t seen since before puberty. This is done to protect your junk and to make sure everything stays on, but be ready for a, er, briskly intimate fit that is sometimes achieved by throwing one end of the fundoshi over a tent bar and pulling down to wedge it up between your cheeks.
Next comes your tabi (toe socks). These are the most important part of your attire and you don’t want to mess this up. The grounds of the temple are covered in gravel and with thousands of people packed on top of each other, stepping on each other’s feet, if you lose a tabi halfway through the event you’re going to be in a lot of pain. Put your tabi on and do up the little clasps, then grab that roll of cloth-type tape. Wrap the tops of your tabi to your legs as tightly as possible so they don’t come off, no matter what. Repeat: do not mess this up.
There are other, colored rolls of tape for sale, too. These are for your hands, in case you are working as a team. The winning groups are usually judo teams or similar groups of guys working together. They identify each other in the crowd by putting colored tape on their hands in certain patterns. If you intend to seriously compete as a team, you may wish to do this, as well.
WHAT TO EXPECT
When you get to Saidaiji you will have some time to get food, drinks and check out the temple before the event starts. Around 7:30 – 8:00PM you should grab your fundoshi, tabi and tape, and get changed in one of the tents. It’s best if you go with a group of 5-10 people – first, so you’re not waiting around freezing your cheeks off, and second, so that you can form a group. Once you’re (un)dressed and ready to go, grab some friends and step outside. If you watch for a minute you’ll inevitably see some Japanese guys run by in a row with their arms over each other’s shoulders, shouting “WASHOI, WASHOI, WASHOI!”. Grab your friends and copy them.
Runners will follow a circuit that takes you out onto the main street, down a couple of blocks and back, and then up the road to the main gate. Once inside, you’ll make a loop around the temple grounds, starting with a nice splash through a freezing cold, waist-deep pool. As you’re doing so, please look upon the statue of Kanon, Goddess of Mercy, in the center and enjoy the irony. From there you’ll jog up the stairs of the temple before continuing around the side to a small shrine where you can clap your hands and bow and shake the rope with the bell on it. From there turn back and continue the circuit down and behind the temple and then out to the main gate to make another loop. Usually you’ll make this loop 5-10 times, which sounds crazy until you realize the only thing keeping you warm is continuing to run.
After some time people will begin to gather on the main platform of the temple. When there are enough people that you can keep warm by huddling with them, jump in there and hang out. It will probably be some time before the main event (10PM). STAY AWAY FROM THE STAIRS (see below). The crowd will begin to shuffle/sway/fall from side to side. Do your best to stay upright. As more and more guys join the crowd it will start to get really, really hot. Priests up on the second floor will throw ladles of water into the crowd. At first it sucks but eventually you’ll be grateful for it.
*If you hear whistles and/or see a line of people pushing into the crowd with poles, they are police/medics. They’re either grabbing someone who is injured or pulling out someone who is being violent. Try to make way for them.
THE MAIN EVENT
At 10PM the lights will go out for 10 seconds and the priests will throw the “shingi” (scripture-wrapped bundles of sticks) into the crowd. There are several (number unknown) small or “decoy” shingi and one “dai shingi”. The main one is larger and has incense in the center so you should be able to smell it and/or see some smoke if you’re close. Even if you can’t see it, you’ll be very aware of where it is as the entire crowd will surge towards it. This is a good time to decide if you want to head into the melee or call it a night. The smaller shingi, while not worth any money or fame are also considered incredibly lucky. The fight for the shingi usually takes 15-30 minutes. When it’s over or when you’ve had enough, head back to your changing tent and get warm clothes on, then get something hot to eat or drink. It’s usually possible to wrap up by 11PM.
HOW TO “WIN”
If you get your hands on any of the shingi, do whatever you can to hang onto it and head for any of the gates out of the temple grounds. Once you clear them you’re good, but before that point you can be jumped by anyone and have it taken from you.
A little is okay, it’ll keep you warm. A lot is not. Do not get drunk, as you will look like an ass as you stagger through the streets in front of children and families. This is a religious festival at a temple, so save the heavy drinking for afterward. Furthermore, being drunk may lead to you getting seriously injured in the event. See the warnings below. If you are noticeably drunk and staggering you may be pulled out by the volunteer police and barred from entering. That said, for warm-ups there are a few convenience stores in Saidaiji where you can get alcohol, and there is usually a stand which ladles out free cups of hot amazake (pulpy, white sake with low alcohol content) to runners. There’s also a place that hands out free, hot udon after the event. See the map below.
Guys with long hair – put it up as much as possible, make it as hard to grab as you can. There are always a couple of jerks who like to grab ponytails or yank on long hair. And while we cannot say what level of response is warranted, please do not fight.
PLEASE DO NOT FIGHT!
Things can get pretty rough in there, but remember: this is a festival, not a mosh pit. Under no circumstances is it okay to openly strike anyone or fight. Some people are dicks, try to be the better person. Keep in mind that as foreigners we are highly visible at this event. We would like to maintain our good image and not draw any negative attention while we are guests here.
WATCH THE STAIRS!
At the edges of the raised area around the temple are steep stone stairs. This is the most dangerous area. As more and more people crowd onto the raised temple platform, the crowd starts to sway and it becomes uncontrollable towards the edges. Try to position yourself in the center of the platform or below the stairs.
DO NOT STAND CLOSE TO THE STAIRS.
BEWARE OF GOING UNDER
The biggest danger in this event is going under, meaning you fall down and people step on you and you can’t get back up. This happens because the crowd is so dense that there is literally no way to make space and help people get back up. Everyone is mashed together and the momentum of the crowd makes everyone sway/fall into each other continuously, and there’s no way to stop it.
IF YOU GO DOWN: cradle and protect your head and try to get an arm up so people can pull you up.
Similarly, if you feel someone under you do whatever you can to help them get up. Sometimes it can take 5-10 minutes to pull someone up.
Be safe, take care and enjoy!