This weekend has been…exhausting. Saturday morning was musical rehearsal in Kamojima. It was a very sparsely populated rehearsal, but I finally was able to rehearse my shark scene on a stage with the necessary people. After the key fiasco on Saturday, I had to leave even earlier than I already was planning to, so that I could come back to Ikeda and go by the home store and make copies of my landlady’s key to my door and return it to her.
A few of us met in Ikeda to catch a train from there to Okayama, up on Honshu. The weather was positively miserable–dark, cold, and raining incessantly. We met up with a lot more people there, but ended up splitting off for dinner–since Brian had made our festival bookings through a group separate from the rest of Tokushima, I left early, thinking I’d be riding specifically with them. In the end, though, all the attending JETs boarded the same buses and headed to Saidaiji Temple outside Okayama City, the location of the Okayama Hadaka Matsuri–the Okayama Naked Man Festival.
(I put off mentioning “naked man” because the last time I uttered those words in my dad’s presence, upon coming home from the first session of a figure drawing class where I didn’t realize there would be nude models, he didn’t take the news well. (Okay, I actually did it more for dramatic effect, but anyway.))
The premise is that men of all ages (there’s a separate boys’ festival earlier in the day) wear fundoshi, which are sumo-esque loincloths, and go running around the temple grounds in the freezing February weather, dunking themselves in a fountain of icy cold water once for each time around the grounds, and shouting, “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!” (a phrase mainly meant to keep the participants energetic and moving forward). This is until midnight, though; they all gather on the main outdoor floor of the temple, on the surrounding steps, or on the ground around it, waiting for priests to throw blessed sticks in the air at the stroke of midnight. The men then fight for the possession of these sticks, because to end up with one when all the chaos has died down means you’re promised a year of good fortune.
It was crazy. I’ve never seen so many bare bums in one place in my life. Of our Tokushima group, all but two of the guys who went ended up running in the festival (only Brian and Andrew didn’t–but Rory, Josh, Joey, Jon, Mark, Hayden, and Rich did; we only saw a few of them), and once we arrived, we saw Rory and Josh immediately…and it was definitely a little strange and a bit awkward, seeing them wearing only a thin cloth covering their front (and even then, only barely) and not their back at all. Once we stopped–it was a crowded thoroughfare and people noticed the impediment to traffic–a bunch of Japanese people started stopping and staring at the two nearly naked gaijin, and some even snapped photos. There were guys staring at them with their mouths hanging open. Once we realized what we’d inadvertently started, we all started laughing–and then we left so the crowd would (and did) dissipate.
Our group consisted of eight Tokushima ladies and one guy. As the night went on, though, the crowds became too much and we ended up fragmenting, but Kirsten, Gilly, Jill, Andrew, and myself stuck together. We found a really prime spot where they were cordoning traffic in and out of the freezing-water fountain and pool, and we watched the groups go by–some were employees of a company that were hoisting a banner for their group, and others were just random groups of men bunched together. A few walked silently, a few walked briskly, and most jogged in rows, holding onto each other by the knots on the back of their fundoshi because it was the only thing they could hold onto. (I should also mention that they were given liberal amounts of sake to drink as the night went on for their efforts.) We recognized one of our JETs, a first-year named Jon, and he looked progressively pinker and more drunk with each of the three passes his group made.
While we were standing there, some Japanese guys around our age, probably university students, took notice of us and started shouting, “Wasshoi gaijin!” We ended up talking to them–they all had the spiky-haired wannabe-rockstar look that so many Japanese guys have. One told us in English that he was a Japanese boy, and another told me in Japanese that I look like one of his classmates, except she’s Brazilian.
Our group left the shelter of our covered vantage point and moved up to an uncovered hill with an excellent view for the last hour-plus of waiting until the midnight craziness happened. There were already hundreds of men on the dais, though, kind of pushing back and forth; there was this wave of slow back-and-forth motion there. But as it got closer to midnight and more men tried to climb up for a chance at the sticks, it got a little more dangerous, and people started being pushed off the sides and down the steps, sometimes a few stumbling, sometimes a few tumbling, and sometimes whole waves of thirty or forty people going down. A few fights broke out, and groups of ten policemen would sometimes fight their way onto the dais to pacify something or other. One time that happened, one of the guys involved in the fight actually started pushing at the cops themselves! If that happened in the US, the guy would’ve been taken down immediately, but this guy was a lot bigger than the cops and being a police officer in Japan doesn’t have the same physical involvement that it does in the US.
Midnight came–from where we were, we had a great view of the temple and grounds, but everything was too far for us to see details. Really, we saw a sea of dark-haired heads, lots of backs, then fundoshis and bums and legs, then men scattered down the steps, and then just a sea of dark hair and flesh and fundoshis around the temple as well (the crowd resembled chocolate chip cookie dough), and people were routinely getting pushed around as it was, so we couldn’t see exactly how the action intensified, except suddenly there were two or three men climbing on top of the others, and instead of arms sticking out of the top of the crowd, I think I saw a foot once.
We left before the end to beat the crowds back to our bus, which left at 1 AM and arrived at Okayama Station at 1:45. I was a little concerned because in the very brief time I’d seen Brian that night, he’d told me I had to go check in with Ashley at the hotel together (luckily, the same one as the other Tokushima folks–Brian booked me through a different group), which made no sense, but I was dead tired and kind of concerned about what I’d do if it weren’t an easily resolvable situation–but luckily, Ashley had JUST checked in and her check-in paper was in front of the lady I was talking to, so I just went straight up and called it a night.
This actually was very reminiscent of something I did a couple of years ago. The weather was the same–cold, rainy, and flat-out miserable. However, the occasion was a lot geekier; we were at Star Wars Celebration 3, a massive Star Wars convention in Indianapolis in April 2005, and five of my online friends (Andy, Emmanual, Emily, Nanci, and Nathan) and I camped out overnight to see George Lucas give a talk the following morning, at his first convention appearance in over 20 years. Once I realized the parallel last night, it actually made the rest of the night pretty amusing–though George Lucas and hundreds of men in loincloths are two very different things indeed.
This morning I was out by 9:30 to catch a 9:50 train back home, but my lack of money and the lack of convenience stores that supported my bank card meant no breakfast. Kirsten, Joey, and Gilly had run to make the train–we all had musical prop-building to attend to. I got back to my apartment, ended up completely zonking out for an hour totally by accident, and was over an hour late to the prop-building fest, where a camera crew from TV Tokushima was going around asking us questions and conducting mini-interviews and the like.
We’re down to crunch time for the musical, though. Dress rehearsals are next week and there’s still so much work to do–it wasn’t at all like this last year, and everyone’s really stressed out (the three leaders especially–Jordan, Joey, and Chris) and working hard to get everything done on time. My costume parts will only be made next week. And it seems that with each rehearsal I attend, I end up taking on more and more responsibility–but it isn’t just me. Chris wrote the musical with the assumption that we’d have as much interest for it as we did last year, and we don’t have as many people willing to commit to it this year, so everyone’s taking on multiple roles on and off the stage. My current list of participation is quite impressive, certainly the largest list of anybody in the cast:
- Nose Extension Technician (primarily scene 6, when I actually have a full-on silent comedy routine as I make Jordan/Pinocchio’s nose longer and longer, but also in scenes 2 and 3, assisting with moving stuff on and off the stage)
- Asimo the Robot (scene 1, one line)
- Monstro the Shark (scene 9, real choreography involved, and one line repeated twice in Japanese)
- Tokushima AJET Choir (scene 1, the very first thing to happen on the stage; about a minute of singing)
- Publicity design (poster, finished, and playbill, in progress)
- Sound mixing
- Sound technician (unless we can find enough people willing to volunteer backstage, Joey and I are going to swap off manning the sound booth at all the shows)
As soon as Joey broke the news to me about the sound tech stuff falling on us at our end-of-the-day “conference,” this dialogue happened:
Me: Sweet, that makes seven roles for me this year.
Christine B: Yeah, that was me last year! What else can I do? (She was three separate characters and appeared in every single act.)
Chris: Yeah, how many times can Smitha put her name in the playbill?
Me: Yeah–ooh, Smitha Prasadh, Smitha Prasadh, Smitha Prasadh…
Joey: We should rename the musical from Pinocchio to Smitha.
Someone else: Smithocchio!
Me: (mishearing it as “Presario”) Haha, Compaq!
I gave Sally a ride home and then met up with Julie and an equally exhausted Brian at Paparagi for a couple of hours because I really, really needed coffee and food and didn’t have the energy or wakefulness to make any myself–coffee plus Julie’s genki-ness kind of helped to energize us both. Brian also went to the Marugame Toys-R-Us and decided to buy me more Star Wars action figures! I now have Yoda riding a bug, Chewie, and C-3PO. Awesome.
And…that was my weekend. Naked men in the rain, and building props. And once again, these long entries are more for posterity for my sake than for you, so if you read all that, thank you!