Hello from Aizu-Wakamatsu! This past day was one of the best of the trip so far - The highlight being the Hadaka Matsuri festival. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In the morning Jay, Mayu and I set out for Tsuruga-jo (a famous castle in Aizu) and a restaurant for an Udon feast. We walked a couple of kilometers in the falling snow to reach the castle and enjoyed a cup of tea there. Aizu is far quieter (and colder) than the insanity of Tokyo, and standing in the silence looking up at the castle was surreal. From the castle we continued to the restaurant and stuffed ourselves with udon in preparation for the festival.
A short time later, Jay’s friend Ryoko picked us up from his place and drove us out to the temple. There I met the rest of the Aizu gaijin crew: Arthur, Mark, Christian, Paul and Neil (all of us except Neil took part in the festival). It all began with lots of sake in a large tatami room. We each had to strip naked and be dressed in a fundoshi (loin cloth) by someone who knew how to tie it. Once everyone was dressed, more sake chugging and cheering commenced. We got the two-minute warning and everyone gathered near the door… then out! Into the bitter cold wearing nothing but our fundoshi (it was snowing hard!) to run up a long set of frozen stairs. On the way up we were doused with ice water. At the top of the stairs there was a basin of cold water into which we were supposed to toss our coins and make a prayer. Mark and Jay right before me both decided to jump completely into the tub, so I followed suit. I think that was the coldest moment of my life, but the adrenalin numbed the pain so I kept screaming and ran, naked and freezing, into the temple.
Inside, there was a horde of fundoshi-clad men surrounded by hundreds of photographers and bystanders, all cheering “wa-shoi! wa-shoi!”. The next and final part of the ritual is try to climb up a rope to reach the rafters of the temple. There is only one rope, and hundreds of men trying like mad to climb it. The noisy energy and adrenalin made me forget that I was dripping wet in the freezing cold and I jumped into the fray. At first, I was trying to just get my hands on the wildly-swinging rope and pull myself up, but it was nearly impossible to get above the sea of grabbing hands. Many times someone would get halfway up and slip down, knocking 2 or 3 others off the rope. I figured that the best technique was to get up on the crowded platform next to the rope and jump onto it just after someone had fallen and scurry up before I could be pulled off from below. I got in position after a few minutes, jumped onto the rope at the right moment, and struggled my way to the top! There were about 25 others up in the rafters watching the mayhem below and cheering the rest on. Arthur and Jay soon also made it up - 3 out of 6 gaijin is pretty good considering a relatively small amount of the hundreds reached the top!
After climbing back down I walked outside the temple into the snow and was stopped by a Japanese reporter. After about a minute of searching for the words, he asked me if there was anything like this in America. My bare feet had all but frozen themselves to the ground at this point so I blurted out, “Not that I know of!” and ran down the stairs. Ryoko said they’ll probably air it tomorrow so I’ll try to catch my own Japanese TV debut! At the bottom everyone ran over to another small building. Inside, we were each awarded a randomly-sized bottle of sake and then I hurried back to the room from which we started. Finally warm again (I had been naked in the cold for 2 hours), I went upstairs to the onsen and relaxed.
The whole experience was incredible. It’s quite a feeling to have participated in something that has been going on virtually unchanged every January 7th for 700 years.
Tomorrow I am traveling back to Tokyo to see a Sumo match on the 9th, and then onto Osaka and Kyoto!