By Wesley Capepon and Callum Watson
When one first sees pictures of 9000 men dressed only in fundoshi (loincloths) running around and engaged in a giant brawl the first thing that comes to mind is “what the hell are they doing?!” The Japanese participants believe that if they end up with the shingi (sacred stick) at the end, it will bring a year of good luck (aided by a large cash sum), and if not, they will still receive blessings from the two deities Senjukannon and Goousho Daigongen, just like their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers. We knew none of this though. However, either being tired of living or, simply, as one teacher put it, being henna (strange) gaijin, we decided to join in for the craic.
The festival at Kannonin Temple near Okayama City dates back to the Eisho Era (1504-21) as a form of prayer for peace (?!) and a good harvest. Today it has grown into one of Japan’s most famous festivals, drawing up to 30,000 spectators (and over 200 JETs) every year. As well as the main adult competition, children are trained from a young age at an earlier contest in which they fight over mochi or “treasure tubes”. The main festival begins at 9pm when the participants arrive to get “dressed” and numb their nerves with some suitably strong liquor. By 11pm the 658 police officers, 744 fire fighters and 230 organisers are all in place and the festival begins. Linked at the shoulders in rows of 3 to 5, groups of men run several circuits of the temple complex to chants of “washoi” (let’s go). Crowds line the route, and just in case the near-zero temperatures don’t keep the runners cool, water is sprinkled on them before they run through a steeple chase-style water bath. After having done several rounds, each time praying to the two deities, the participants gather under the temple itself, packed in like sardines. On the stroke of midnight the lights go off, the shogi is dropped and chaos ensues. Emergency-bell wielding first-aiders, as well as police, are on hand, but neither could prevent one man from getting trampled to death last year. Post-event interviews exposed a rather blasé attitude: injuries are usually brought on by the victims’ own silly actions and, in any case, police joining the brawl isn’t going to help.
This is where our stories diverge.
Callum: As I ran around the temple eventually working myself into an Ancient Greek-style cathartic trance, I stopped feeling the pain of both the cold, and a rather painful injury I inflicted upon my head before I got to the temple, a result of a pre-matsuri nomihoudai. Inside the temple one of my friends clung to me, later saying he’d wanted to at least be in the company of a friend. After midnight, the crowd moved like a sea, and eventually my feet left the ground as I found myself in a human cascade flowing off the side of the temple. A few seconds later I was on the ground where it was raining men; fun for some-I thought I was going to die.
Wesley: I heard that people died participating in the Hadaka matsuri in years past; I also heard that they died because they were in the temple, which is considered the most dangerous area. With this in mind, I told myself, “stay out of the temple and you`ll be ok.” So, where did I find myself after running through the sacred pool five times and parading around the streets yelling washoi until my mind and body became numb with repetition? Right in the middle of the temple. It was like being in an insanely frightening mosh pit, except there was no music, it was the middle of winter, everyone was in man diapers and some guy kept throwing water on me. There were times when I thought I wasn’t going to make it out, there were times when I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack because my life was in the hands of an entity comprised of 9,000 drunk Japanese men in diapers and for some sick reason there were times when I was thinking, “I can`t wait `till next year.”
The hadaka matsuri being what it is, it’s hard to believe that so many JTEs see our Thai beach holidays as so abunai.