Sticks and Dicks
The wave comes again, like it had many times before. The pain on my feet, arms, and chest returns as bodies all around me squish my own, and I try to find open pockets to relieve the crunch. But you learn very quickly to become one with the flow, for if you don’t recreate the balance the only outcome is defeat. I push back with all that I can to make sure the people at the other end won’t be able to advance so easily, as they try to force themselves in the center of the madness.
The monk standing above us occasionally pulls out a ladle to throw water on us, and holds out his hands to give periodic signs as a countdown for the main event.
Then everything turns pitch black. The yelling gets louder. The sticks are dropped. The fight begins.
Such was the Okayama Naked Man Festival.
I came across Okayama’s naked man festival shortly after my trip home. This “half-way” mark in my JET career, as it were, made me think of how little time I had left in Japan. One day, I saw the Okayama AJET community inviting people to the event with many people I knew going to either participate or spectate. With nothing to lose, I decided to join as well.
The Okayama Naked Man Festival, or Saidaiji Eyo as it’s also referred to, can be dated back about 500 years, making it one of Japan’s oldest and most attended naked man events. Over 9,000 men compete for “Shingi,” wooden sticks blessed over a period of 14 days, which is said to give extreme luck to those who obtain them. Two special sticks, which are marked as “male” and “female,” actually come with a cash prize, while the other 98 are simply for good luck. However, there is no shortage of people who will do anything to get either.
I hopped onto a bus in Okayama with other JETs and English teachers which would bring us to the temple for preparation, while veteran runners from the Okayama AJET community gave us the tips and tricks on how to survive the ordeal. Not willing to give up a opportunity, the crew from the infamous TV Tokyo show “Why did you come to Japan!?” also joined and filmed us whenever they could.
The required outfit for any runner is the traditional fundoshi, a white cloth wrapped around the torso and then brought under to create a sack for your sack, and tabi, which are simple white socks. To make sure everything is nice and snug, the volunteers who wrap the fundoshi use the last bit of cloth to pull up the asscrack and make a tight knot in the back.
That’s fine, I never needed them anyways.
I also made sure to bring my lucky Hachimaki, or traditional bandanna, which I’ve worn at every sports day. If there was any better opportunity to wear it, this was it. Suddenly the interpreter for our group rushed over to me and said I needed to take it off before we go into the temple grounds. Confused, I asked him why he was so concerned.
He then made the motion of someone pulling down the handband around my neck and began to act like he was choking.
While the event is not necessarily “dangerous,” there were plenty of stories of brawls breaking out, and weapons brought in through devious means. We were also warned of participants who donned blue and black fundoshi, which was the sign that they were part of the Yakuza. Simply put, with the mixture of testosterone, booze and short tempers, you never knew who you would fighting next to for a stick. However, I did keep on the headband for as long as I could, until I was prompted again to take it off.
Before entering the temple grounds, we ran around the local area to various spots where we were given tea, sake and occasionally having water thrown on us by spectators. Runners each stand four across, with arms locked, all while yelling “WA-SHOI” to keep the spirits high. We then entered the temple to do the required three laps around the grounds: first, entering the purification pool, then to the main hall where the head monk would throw water on us, and finally to another hall for a quick prayer. Then we’d head back right to the temple’s front gate for another round.
The water in the purification pool is some of the coldest I’ve ever been in, but between the cheers from the crowd, with plenty of requests for high fives; the taiko drums roaring; the loud chanting between the teammates; and the adrenaline flowing, it was easy enough to ignore the cold. The buildup to the main event is intense, but that’s the exact purpose.
We were the second group to finish our laps and arrive to the main hall, which left us an hour until the sticks would be thrown. In our anxiety and cold states, we took our places and created our battle plans: If someone on our team grabbed a stick after the immediate drop, put it next to your junk and act cool since it was not uncommon for other people to feel each other up to see if they had hidden a stick. If you found yourself in a battle with other people for a stick, yell the code word “RUFIO!!!” to request for help.
After we solidified the plans, we quickly found ourselves separated as more teams arrived to push and elbow their way to their preferred spots. Even with 40 minutes before show time, it was already packed and the people around me were plenty riled up, creating the fierce “wave”, and falling off the stairs when it got too rough. “PLEASE CALM DOWN,” a voice over an intercom kept pleading. “PLEASE TO NOT PUSH SO HARD.” If someone happened to get injured in the mass, one of the monks above would hold out a stick with a cloth hanging down to let the police know where the injured person was.
Another monk kept throwing water on us, with people around me screaming “COMMON, THROW SOME DAMN WATER OVER THIS WAY!” While the water may be for “purification,” it quickly became apparent it was more to cool us down, and a thick cloud of steam began to form above us.
Luckily I was able to find some photos of me in the crowd. I give all credit to Trevor Williams for the photos, which I first discovered in an article from The Atlantic. You are seriously a bro and the shots look great.
Some may ask, “How do you even know that’s you there?” Besides the noticeable wrist-bands I was wearing, you simply just know where you were. If I were to go again, I’d be able to stand in the exact same spot. You simply don’t forget where you were in the war.
Then, suddenly, lights out.
Here’s what it looked like from the outside.
While I had not grabbed any sticks after the initial drop, shortly after the lights turned back on a teammate of mine, a tall French man who I had been standing next to for the majority of the wait, looked right at me.
“I got one.”
“You better not be joking,” I said.
“No, I’m not!” he screamed. “But I need help! There’s a guy trying to pull it down from under me!”
More eyes and hands starting coming towards us, and I grabbed what I could of the bundle of sticks. I began to yell “RUFIO!!! RUFIIIIIIIOOO!!!” to get any teammates to help.
Unfortunately, I think I ruined the whole “Rufio” tactic for any future participants. After my cries, I began to hear people behind me yell, “THE FOREIGNERS HAVE IT!” More groups rushed in to try to take our sticks, and the battle truly began.
We swerved left, right, down, and got very close to falling down the stairs at one point. The whirlpool intensified, but we tried. It was eventually pulled from my partner’s hands, and he raised his arms in defeat.
A fairly large man from the fringes of the group then approached me and slowly put his arms around me.
“Do you have the stick?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
“Where is it then?”
“I have no idea.”
“…If you say so.” And he promptly left.
SUDDENLY, ANOTHER CRY IS HEARD.
A tussle began on the right side of the main hall, with a bunch teammates fighting over a stick. Many of us rushed over, but all noticed one particular detail: there sure were a lot of blue and black fundoshi in the mass. We helped where we could, but made sure to keep our distance. Unfortunately, another battle was lost and we began to exit the temple grounds.
A notice then came over the intercom that the main two Shingi sticks had been obtained. Everyone clapped, while other small scuffles started around us for those fighting over left over sticks. We all marched to the changing room tent, and promptly threw away our tabi, which had turned into a dark-brown. We were told to keep our Fundoshi, as it’s a mark of our participation and good luck if we’re to wrap it round a pregnant woman’s stomach.
Because I guess it touched my dick, or something.
Later that night, we found out three people in our group acted cool and got away with good-luck sticks. So, maybe our fights in the middle were good enough distractions for them to slip out with the sticks. While I did not come away with any prize, the least I can say is that I did see, touch and fight for one, and to even have that opportunity is rare enough. Many others told me they didn’t think a stick came even close to them.
Sometimes in life everything seems to add up, and things just fall right into your hand. Other times you never even get a chance to know it’s there. But at least I tried and have the marks to prove it. That’s something, right?
The taping of our group will air sometime in March, and I’ll post it here if I get a chance. Depending on how it’s presented, I may have something to talk about at that time as well. Until then, here’s a look at last year’s event from a Travel Channel special, featuring many of the people who guided us this year. I have to give the upmost of thanks to all of the Okayama JETs who helped us join, and most definitely to our brave and absolutely impeccable leader Nate, who also takes front stage in the special.
We may have gone our separate ways, but our ties will always be there. For there is no stronger bond than one between naked men fighting for wooden sticks in the dead of February.