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Saturday, Feb. 22, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Men get naked for a year of good luck


Talk about male bonding! Have you ever gotten together with your buddies, stripped down to your thongs and paraded around the neighborhood? In groups of 10 to 12 people at night? In midwinter? No? Well, get with the program -- men in Okayama have been doing this for 400 years. Since I know you are dying to do this, I will tell you about the Naked Festival at Kannonin Temple in Saidaiji, Okayama Prefecture.

On the third Saturday of every February, on what is somehow arranged to be the coldest day of the year, this festival, called "Hadaka Matsuri" (or technically "Saidaiji Eyo"), causes the local men to drink large amounts of sake, strip off their clothing and adhere a "fundoshi" loincloth. They keep warm by jumping up and down and chanting "Washoi!" which means, according to the drunk man who was standing next to me, "Wondafuru!"

At any rate, it definitely means something encouraging and serves as a method of keeping warm, since the men chant "Washoi!" nonstop for hours at a time. Now I know why the Japanese don't have central heating in their homes. The secret to keeping warm is to just drink sake and jump up and down naked while saying, "Wondafuru!"

Although on my planet, the U.S.A., the Hadaka Matsuri would qualify as the world's largest male revue, in Japan running around in G-strings is perfectly acceptable because it is all in the name of ritual. They are not doing this for money, so ladies, please resist the urge to stuff dollar bills into their loincloths. As a matter of fact, I think the Hadaka Matsuri is far more wondafuru than Chippendales AND the Las Vegas show "Thunder From Down Under," the Australian male revue. Why? No entry fee.

Participants of the Naked Festival in Saidaiji are local men who form groups either from their neighborhood or among their coworkers. Each group has a garage where they congregate and practice their "Washoi" in order to get up the courage to do what they will do next: jog around the neighborhood in their fundoshi.

Washoi! Washoi! Washoi! They start by huddling in a group and jumping up and down. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi! They start jogging, very slowly, with one man leading the pack. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi! They follow a predetermined path around the neighborhood, with the goal of eventually reaching the main shrine. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi!

After running around a few blocks, and just when steam starts coming off their bodies, indicating the men have attained a certain body warmth, some authority wearing a thick, insulated stadium jacket throws water on the men to purify them. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi!

All the groups congregate at the Kannon temple, then run around the temple grounds -- Washoi! Washoi! Washoi! -- and pay respects to the statues of two deities: Senju Kannon and Go-ousho Daigongen. For the highlight of the event, at exactly midnight, two sacred sticks, called "shingi," will be tossed by a priest from the inside of the temple, and a man who catches one will have a year of good luck. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi!

Thousands of men stand waiting inside the temple, which sits up high, providing a sort of stage while the voyeurs -- I mean spectators -- gather around the outside of the temple to watch. As midnight nears, the outside lights are cut off, leaving just a yellow glow inside the temple showing the men in their white fundoshi, stretching their arms up to the gods, waiting for the shingi to be tossed.

At the stroke of midnight, all the lights in the temple are cut off and it's chaos: Washoi! Washoi! Washoi! Jump, push, shove. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi! Trip, fall, get trampled. Washoi! Washoi! Washoi!

But for the man who grasps the shingi, it must be worth it. After all, an entire year of good luck would truly be wondafuru!

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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