After my health problems of the last month or so, I decided a little sea air outside the city would be helpful. It just so happened that I had no lessons scheduled on 23rd September, which just so happened to be the first day of the Ohara Hadaka Matsuri – known (not wholly accurately) as the Naked Festival.
This is not unique to the town of Ohara, which lies on the Pacific side of the Chiba headland to the south-east of Tokyo. Many towns have a similar festival which is a ritual to bring a good harvest and a fruitful year of fishing. The “naked” part comes about because participants are expected to carry religious shrines into the ocean, and obviously you don’t want to do that fully dressed. However, it is only usually the chest and shoulders left uncovered (and for women only the shoulders), with the costume having evolved into white scrubs, a white wrap for the belly/lower chest, wellington boots and a headband. There are also some strange black felt arm supports, probably to help the men who have to lift the shrines.
The journey to Ohara was a long one for me – over 2 hours – I already knew the line to Chiba City quite well, though I had never been past Inage station, from Chiba there is a cross-country Sotobo line, going through the other big city in Chiba, Mobara. I had to wait over an hour for the next train on that line. But I had set off early anticipating such delays. I wasn’t even totally sure my Pasmo card would work outside Tokyo, so I had plenty of cash with me in case I needed it.
The journey was interesting – lots of rice fields, with what I thought was a single model white heron in each, until I finally caught one moving! It was a windy day, I saw one woman on a bicycle lose her hat to the wind, the train was too fast for me to see if she got it back.
Finally at about half past one the train pulled into Ohara and thankfully I wasn’t the only one getting off at this stop, it seemed quite popular. There were lots of taxis around and people waiting, and I wasn’t sure which way to go. The town was in front of me but I knew (from the direction of the train) the beach had to be on the other side of the railway tracks.
I wandered up the street into the town and fortunately spotted a Tourist Information Centre straight away. I went inside – it was not very large, and greeted the staff, who straight away asked me if I was going to the festival. They thrust a map in my hand and gave me simple directions in English (the map was marked in Japanese only), and I set off for the beach.
As I had calculated, it was on the other side of the tracks. I passed a few other people from my train some of whom looked uncertain where they were supposed to go. I reassured an Australian guy and his Japanese girlfriend they were heading the right way and explained what the tourist information people had told me.
It was about a 20-minute walk but I was not alone, there was a steady stream of people heading in the same direction. As we got closer to the beach I started seeing more and more people wearing the white open-chested costume of the festival. To my surprise (I thought it was a man thing) there were also women dressed in the costume, though obviously a lot more modestly outfitted.
Eventually I reached the port and spotted a huge crowd of costumed revellers gathering around one particular building, so I headed in that direction. It wasn’t just men and women, there were people of all ages – older men, young boys and girls, all dressed up for the festival. There were a handful of Western tourists like me there too, some carrying fancy camera equipment.
After mingling in the crowd for a while I checked the back of the building where they were setting up some kind of ceremony – there were barriers leading to a podium next to the quayside, and some old men in fancy costumes reading out dedications and introductions.
Inside the building was a row of shrines, each one protected by its group – let’s say it’s krewe – with a distinctive coloured headband to identify each team. Each shrine was mounted on two long beams of wood so they could be carried. They were beautifully designed, ornate pieces of art, with models of eagles carrying plants in their mouths to reflect the wishes for a good harvest.
Back on the stage, the master of ceremonies was moving various artifacts around – there was a tree branch, a vase of either oil or more probably alcohol, and a bow with a couple of arrows. On the table in front of him were examples of the harvest they hoped would be fruitful – fruit, vegetables and shrimp – one particular shrimp being a speciality of the town.
Suddenly they all started coming my way. They were heading along the barriered path towards to podium on the water’s edge. There, the first man wafted the branch 3 times, the holder of the vase poured some of the liquid into the sea, and a third guy with the bow fired off both arrows. Everyone cheered, and they went back to their little stage area, where there were a couple more rituals to complete (seemingly involving drinking from saucers).
I was wandering around taking everything in when suddenly a cheer went up and people started moving very definitively in one direction. Then I saw one of the shrines was on the move. The young (and not so young) men of the town were carrying it, with a breathless rhythmic chant, and the other shrines weren’t far behind them.
I took a couple of pictures then trotted along beside one of the shrines. Each had a team of carriers and supporters – the carriers were almost all men, but the supporters included women and young children. Bells and whistles could also be heard.
They were moving very fast – I’m normally a fast walker but when there is a crowd of people around you all moving at different speeds, it is hard to go at your natural pace. The shrines headed up the road, but most of the crowd seemed to take a short cut to what would be the ultimate destination of the beach. After a moment of indecision I followed the crowd rather than the shrine.
The short cut didn’t turn out to be that much shorter and most of the shrines got ahead of us. But they slowed down a bit as they arrived at the beach and positioned themselves in their respective places to wait for the signal to head for the sea.
The beach, like most mainland Japanese beaches, had dark grey volcanic sand. It was a protected cove, with an artificial spit made from large rocks going out in the bay to give the beach shelter on one side at least. It was windy on this side of Chiba too and small particles of sand continually bombarded everyone on the beach.
I tried to find a good position for pictures, and figured this would be as close to the sea as possible. Of course lots of other people had the same idea. I had some advantage being a tall Westerner that I could just stand behind everyone else. But some of the ever-ingenious Japanese still outsmarted me, they had brought little stepladders!
One of the other photographers started chatting with me – he even gave me his business card – but in the middle of our conversation, one of the krewes started shouting and suddenly they were running towards the sea, and the crowd and their cameras were running alongside them!
It was a bit of an anticlimax I suppose, they just ran in up to their knees, then kind of stopped. But the other shrines were coming now, and there seemed to be some sort of ritual about the positioning they were supposed to take. All the shrines went into the water and lined up alongside each other, and then they started bobbing up and down in a not-entirely choreographed manner.
The next 15-30 minutes was just confusing to me. They came out of the water. They went back into the water. They threw their shrines in the air. They came out again. They started to leave. They came back. They went back into the water again. Sometimes two shrines would line up side by side and have a throwing competition. Sometimes one of the krewe members took a place at the front of the shrine and did some strange singing, dancing, chanting or waving their head around in a strange way.
All the krewes seemed to do some throwing their shrine up and down on the beach before they left. Eventually the last shrine left the water. By now I had taken up position on the rocky spit. There were a couple of marshals there for safety, and every now and then a big wave hit the far side of the spit and caught some people by surprise – I fortunately avoided getting hit.
I came back down onto the beach and started making my way back towards the town, and then I ran into the Australian guy again. He introduced himself as Rus, a graphic designer, and his girlfriend Tomomi. They had missed all the rituals at the start but he got a lot of pictures of the shrines in the sea. We walked back together discussing Japanese life, I got a picture of them with the festival posters.
On the way back into town we passed several shrines with krewes resting on the ground in various states of collapse. For them this was only the first part of their day! Back in the main street of the town, it was festival time. The roads were closed to traffic, there were stalls set up all along the street selling food, souvenirs and competitive games. I bought some fries with garlic salt, one of the few foods available that didn’t involve tentacles.
After an hour or so the shrines all started moving again. First one way down the street, then, after the had all lit their lanterns, they started heading back towards the centre of town (I’m not sure, but probably the big shrine in the middle). I figured time was getting on and I was a long way from home and should think about getting back.
I hopped on a train heading for Tokyo, thinking it was just as good as the ones for Chiba, but unusually this train actually had a conductor collecting tickets and I had to pay an extra 930 yen. I say extra because I had swiped in to enter the station as usual, when I swiped out at Tokyo station, I still got charged 1660 yen! So in total that journey cost almost 3000 yen. But I guess I got home a lot quicker taking the express route.
I had a really good day! It was great to get out of the city and to spend a day actually sampling some kind of authentic Japanese culture. It was bizarre and funny and gave me some great photos for the blog! My cough seemed to disappear, the sun shone (even if the wind never stopped) and I found myself chatting to different people, events like this seem to make everyone more approachable and interested in you. I hope I can travel to a few more places as interesting as Ohara!