By Danielle Markewicz and Tito Santare
This is a yearly festival that occurs in Yanaizu, Oku Aizu. All men are welcome to participate (usually a JET helps with organising for non-Japanese) and anyone is of course welcome to watch! Danielle gives her perspective as an observer, and Tito tells us what it’s like to join in!
On January 7th of every year, the people of Yanaizu town in Oku Aizu have a very unique festival. Despite the freezing cold and the snow that covers the ground, a group of men strip down to their fundoshi (Japanese loincloth), drink a lot of sake, then run up the hill barefoot to the temple. Once they reach the temple, they compete with each other to climb up a rope to the rafters. If they manage it (and some do with more grace than others) they receive good luck and prosperity for the rest of the year.
The temple where this takes place is Enzo-ji Temple. It is in a beautifully picturesque location at the top of a hill overlooking the Tadami River. At night, they light up the temple grounds and you can view the area as you drive over the two red bridges that lead into town. Enzo-ji is famous for being the place of origin of the akabeko legend, which is now a symbol of Aizu and Fukushima as a whole.
The observers all crowded around the edges of the inside of the temple, huddled together not only because of the small space, but also to keep warm. I got there early to get a prime viewing spot, and I was glad that I wore my long johns and woolly mittens, because despite being indoors, it was quite cold with the doors to the temple wide open!
We heard the participants before we saw them, with a chant of “Washoi! Washoi!” that got louder and louder as the men approached. Then all of a sudden, a long line of men in loincloths poured into the temple and began hauling themselves up the rope to the ceiling!
They pushed and pulled at each other, and scrambled to get into place to climb up the rope. Some were able to shimmy up in no time flat, whereas others got stuck halfway up and had to slide or jump down when they gave up.
The first few men sat on either side of the large gong that is usually rung while visitors pray at the temple. There, they shouted encouragement to the others below and occasionally lent a helping hand to those who were struggling.
Even some of the younger boys got to participate too, with a little help from their dads, of course. They wore matching-coloured headbands so they didn’t get separated, and while normally the men were quite ruthless about pulling, pushing, and even climbing over others to get to the top, everyone backed off when the young boys gave it a try and everyone cheered when they reached the top! What good sportsmanship! Though I will admit that the younger boys tended to climb up the rope like monkeys, they were so quick! It was the older men that had a bit more trouble!
The Yanaizu Naked Man Festival is without a doubt one of the weirdest festivals I’ve been to in Japan, but it was all so much fun to watch! It’s definitely worth a visit!
Originally published on the Goju no Aizu Blog, a blog introducing sightseeing information in the Aizu area.
This was my second year participating in the Yanaizu Hadaka matsuri. I learned about it last year from a friend who pretty much sold me on the tag line that I would get to drink sake and run around the town in a fundoshi to the local temple. Having no idea what the event was premised on or even what a fundoshi was, I agreed anyways. It’s definitely become of those unforgettable “Japan experiences” that I am glad I took part in.
At the ryokan of my group we started pairing up to have someone snugly tie up our fundoshis before the march. The ryokan master supplied new fundoshis for everyone there. The participating children were first to get their fundoshis tied by their dads. Almost immediately, the childish antics commenced with butt-slapping. Once they were all fundoshi-ed, there was a brief stand-off until all the boys became adjusted. Easily the most entertaining part of the night. I had my fundoshi tied by the ryokan master, which was interesting experience to have to walk up to an old man naked, cupping yourself with one hand, and asking “Onegaishimasu…” and handing over your loincloth with the other hand.
After that, we took one last drink of sake, got salted and started our march through Yanaizu to the temple. The cold wasn’t that bad and my feet quickly adjusted and numbed out after a bit. After purifying ourselves in the temple spring, we moved towards the rope. A mob was already man-handling the rope back and forth. This is where you have to forgo being any bit of “Japanese polite” and just push yourself through to the rope.
Although it feels insane getting bumped around in this mob, there is still some honor amongst everyone. Whenever a child was trying to climb, everyone at least seceded a bit and cheered the kid on. One of the boys was moving a little slow up the rope even with his father helping him. Another spry young man tried to jump ahead of the little kid since he was taking too long. This guy was quickly knocked off the rope (not hurt) and thrown back into the tussle. If there isn’t a child on the rope though, it’s free game on getting rope climbing space. Some people will try to help you while others will step on your head to get a boost. During a failed climb, I was trying to help boost up people above me while climbing. I didn’t get very high, so when my muscles burned out and I stalled, someone was prompt to grab me and pull me down.
After some rest, mental psyching and repositioning, I was able to get back up to the rope and find my time. Both years, my successful climbs up the rope were based on watching the rope and just knowing when the right time to climb was. This year, space on the rope opened up, but it was a bit far away from me. I could feel that was my time, so as soon as it got a bit closer, I leaped from a platform next to the rope, pulled myself in and shimmied my way up to victory. Up top, I was greeted to many congratulations and high-fives. I was glad that I didn’t hear any bells ringing while ascending, which signals that you are exposing yourself while climbing. Up top, I continued to cheer on my fellow climbers until the event ended.
Then we left the temple, strolled back down the stairs and lined up for a sake raffle with prizes ranging from a simple 300ml bottle up to a whopping 2L twin bottle set! This might have been the toughest part of the matsuri though as shuffling slowly through a line quickly sucks the heat out of you. Eventually, my feet started to sting through the first signs of frostbite. After returning to the ryokan, we were treated to the onsen, where I could re-feel every single knick and gash in my skin again. This was followed up by a complimentary feast and continued boozing from the ryokan master through the night. I am looking forward to participating again next year!