It has been said by greater minds than mine that it is better to regret what you have done than what you haven’t. There is perhaps some truth in those words, as I still kick myself to this day for not mustering the courage to ask out Kate Lander when I was eight years old. However there are some things in my life that I am certain were best left undone. Eating bull testicle in Vietnam for one. Getting lost in a Kathmandu red light district is another. And if it was possible to erase the painful, tedious and heat stroke inducing camel ride in India’s great Thar Desert from memory, I would most certainly be taking the blue pill. So last February, as the cold winter breeze whipped up my loincloth, stinging my bare arse, I wondered if taking part in something called ‘naked festival’, was going to join the list.
The Hadaka Matsuri (officially known as Naoi-shinji) held in Konomiya, Aichi has its origins in 787AD, when Emperor Shotoku ordered shrines to perform cleansing ceremonies in order to rid the land of the plague. In Konomiya, villagers took this as carte blanche to grab hold of any poor sod –most likely a passing traveller enticed with seeming acts of kindness – and drag them into the Owari Shosha shrine (Konomiya Shrine) where he would be offered up as a sacrifice. Due to its brutality and the odd riot here and there, the festival was outlawed by the ruling Owari Clan in 1744. However, in the in the early Meiji period it was reinstated minus the murder, since when the festival has become a touch more civilised.
But only a touch.
My first experience of the Naked Festival was watching from the sidelines as thousands of men in nothing but loincloths (the Meiji era return of the Naoi-shinji festival brought a hitherto unused nudity aspect that was popular in other festivals at the time) paraded drunkenly through the town. As cheers of masculine bravado ricocheted about the snow-topped buildings, for some reason, rather then marvel at the stupidity of it all, I thought to myself: I want in.
Twelve months later as I stood on Konomiya’s windswept streets trying with all my strength to contain my shivering I was beginning to regret my decision. But I couldn’t let anyone else know this, least of all the thirty other foolhardy men in my brigade, likewise stripped bare save a fundoshi loincloth pulled painfully up our jacksies and a pair of rubber soled tabi shoes on our feet. No, we were men, we were robust, we were brave. We were bloody freezing.
We downed vast quantities of sake and began to adorn our naoi-zasa, great big bamboo poles, with strips of cloth squares on which the townswomen had written prayers for the coming year. Thanks to the rigorous exercise of pole toting macho gusto, both coupled with and enhanced by the sake, we were sufficiently warmed and set off to join the rest of the parade of half naked, pole pumping maniacs on the trip to Owari Shosha shrine.
The streets were lined with spectators cheering us on, reaching out to touch us. As those watching glimpsed my whiter-than-the-average-Japanese flesh they called out to me, “Gaijin samma! Gaijin samma!” and patted me with glee. It was like being Brad Pitt on Oscar night. If Brad Pitt decided to replace the customary tux with near-nudity, that is.
As we approached the passageway to the shrine we stepped up our game. Not content with merely jogging with our bamboo poles we began to spin at high speed, before planting the pole in the ground. One by one we scampered up the poles, as close to the top as we dared, as the crowd below shrieked its approval.
Finally we approached the shrine’s tori and sprinted towards the entrance, before hurling our pole with all our might towards the waiting priests within. The adrenaline was pumping like an oilrig, but the main event was still to come.
As the sun began to fall along with the temperature, we men, all 9,000 of us, ripped to our naked tits on sake, awaited the arrival of the shin otoko. The man of god.
Now, if we all sound like mental cases for getting involved in this insanity, you should check out the shin otoko. He has been selected by a group of hopefuls to take the place of the sacrifice. For the previous three days he will have subsisted on nothing but thin rice gruel in near solitary confinement, before being completely shaved bare, eyebrows aside, stripped naked and let loose.
In the meantime, we are waiting for him, en masse. Chants rise and fall, as buckets of ice cold water are cannoned around, soaking us, hoping to dampen our spirits, but we will not be calmed. The excitelent is rushing through us at the same velocity as the steam rises from our bodies. And then there is a cheer. The shin otoko is here. It is time.
As if with one consciousness we rush towards where we think this poor naked bastard is, and crush into him. Our task is to hit, slap or poke him, and in doing so our bad luck for the coming year is passed on, he is a conduit of our potential misfortune. His entourage of protectors can do nothing but hurl yet more ice water in our direction, but now the adrenaline is coursing through our veins. I push closer and closer towards the shaven man. I can see him and, as elbows dig me and the crush intensifies, I imagine his pain.
And yet, as I look into his eyes I can see that there is none. He is somewhere else, on another plane, a vacant shell of a semi deity, and it is truly beautiful.
I am shaken from my reverie as a man hurls himself from atop a fence, over our heads, crowd surfing with the aptitude of a young Eddie Vedder (ask your parents, kids), and still he misses. A hand slaps the back of my head and then another as people mistake my shaven bonce for the man of god. I push closer, reach out my hand as elbows jab into my unprotected sides, extend my arm and glance the shin otoko’s cheek. Is it enough? No. I regroup, drop a shoulder like in my high school rugby days and heeeeaaavve!
Soon I am nose to nose with him, I reach up and tap him three times on the head, and while I feel nothing more than the pain of the crush, I am absolved.
Suddenly the crowd shifts as we surge towards the shrine’s opening, whisking the shin otoko to the haven of safety within its walls. Eventually, as hosepipes spray us from all directions, the god man is dragged inside and a huge cheer goes up. It is done.
As his wounds are tended to and he prepares for his late night trip to bury an ashen mochi cake, into which he will have passed the accumulated misfortune of the town, the rest of us are slapping palms and backs. The crowd again gather. “Gaijin samma! Gaijin samma!” They are touching me again, basking in my reflected good luck.
Finally I return to my brigade. My sopping wet fundoshi hangs from me. I have lost both tabi shoes and blood pours from cuts on my feet as I shiver like a drowned cat. But I am elated. I am exhilarated. I am misfortune free. And I am already talking about doing it again following year.
So, how about you? Want to see the mayhem? Takes place on the 13th day of the lunar year, which is March 3rd 2015 from 3:00pm.
Konomiya Shrine (Owari Shosha Shrine) is just six minutes walk from Konomiya station.