Japan’s premier naked festival, Sominsai (Somin Festival), was held this year on January 29 at Kokuseki Temple in Iwate Prefecture.
The name “naked” is somewhat misleading though, as participants are required to wear a fundoshi, a piece of white cloth which can best be descried as a traditional Japanese G-string. This scant clothing offers little protection from the blistering, below-freezing cold participants are expected to endure. Nevertheless, the toughest of men from across Japan come to test their mettle by trekking through grueling icy course from the temple to the river that’s cold enough to make you feel like you’re dying.
I know this because I took part.
That’s right, your fearless reporter put his life at risk to bring the experience of Kokuseki’s Sominsai to you, our beloved readers.
Before leaving, I challenged my colleagues at RocketNews24 to join me, but only one of them had the cojones to do so.
After arriving at the temple, despite the light dusting of snow and the -7℃ temperature, we there stood in our underwear preparing for the big naked gauntlet. Though it was already pretty damn cold at this point, little did I know I was only getting a hint of what was to be one of the harshest experiences of my life.
First, let me explain the procession of Somin Festival in a nutshell.
Participants start at Kokuseki Temple’s main hall, where they receive a lit paper lantern to take with them. From there, they make our way down the icy temple steps to an even icier slope that ends at the Ruritsubo River. There, they put down the lantern and pick up a bucket which, is used to pour freezing river water over themselves three times. After that, they grab their lanterns and go back up the mountain, past the temple to a statue for a prayer. They then return to the temple, where the whole process starts again.
One lap takes about 20 to 30 minutes, and participants must complete three laps. This means they have to douse themselves with cold river water a total of nine times.
As we waited at the temple. a crowd of hearty men began shouting: “Jassoooo! Joyasaaa!”. This is the typical cheer of this event and it roughly means to purge one of their wickedness.
Then we were off. As we made our way to the river, I began to feel very confident. My body was warm with adrenaline from the anticipation of what was to come and I found myself shouting “Jassoo! Joyasaaa!” along with the crowd.
When I got knee deep into the river the coldness of the river shook me a little, but watching the other men throw water over themselves so recklessly, I convinced myself into thinking that the water really wasn’t that cold after all.
Then I tried it.
The word “cold” doesn’t begin to describe the sensation I felt. Even “freezing” seems somewhat flippant. I think the English language lacks an appropriate adjective for this depth of coldness. As the first bucket of water splashed over me, I felt all the warmth I had built up at the beginning instantly rush out of my body through my mouth in an involuntary “Whoa!”, followed immediately by the thought that I’m a moron for convincing myself the water wouldn’t be this cold.
Still, I carried on. “Jassoooo! Joyasaaa!” I yelled, as I took two more bucketloads of water to my hypothermic body. Strangely, I could feel a slight warmth after each bucket, but only for a millisecond. The rest of the time the cold was pushing all the life out of my body and my knees began to buckle.
Then the real hell started.
It was time to go up the mountain. Even though I had poured water all over myself, my skin was dried very quickly. Maybe the heat of my body evaporated the water or it turned to ice and fell off. Either way, ice had somehow formed inside my shoes and my entire body was shivering so hard that I felt it would just break down at any minute. “I might actually die here,” I thought to myself.
Then I notice the other men in my naked group also going up the mountain cheering “Jassooo! Joyasaa!” enthusiastically. I felt that they must be feeling the same way I was right then, but there they were pushing forward with a spirit that moved me to go further.
By the time the second lap started I had a renewed confidence for what was coming and accepted the hardship I was facing. I was also propelled by the many onlookers and photographers watching my cold, naked body and offering me no easy escape from the pain.
I entered to the river the second time more confidently, knowing it was much easier and a little warmer than going up the mountain. The cheering of spectators and staff along the way also helped warm me up.
Then, disaster struck when the strap of one of my shoes broke. I tried to fix it but my hands were too numb to grip the small piece of fabric. However another group of naked runners came to my aid and helped me fix it. All of these small miracles helped to keep the cold despair at bay.
By the third lap I thought to myself: “Now I’m really going to die.” My brain was fading. The only thing keeping it working was constantly shouting “Jassoo! Joyasaa!” So I kept screaming.
When you reach the end of the third lap, your lantern is extinguished to signify the official end of your journey. Everyone at the finish line was frozen and shivering but smiling with the satisfaction of making it through this ordeal. As I reached the end, a new group of naked runners were just setting off. Those of us who had finished shouted words of encouragement to these friends we have never met nor will we ever meet.
The temple had a rest area set-up for the naked runners. It had a thatched roof with seats made of straw and charcoal heaters sitting throughout. It was very a very quaint setting with all of us sitting, chatting, and laughing like the old friends that this journey has instantly made all of us.
A local was talking about how the event where people compete to try and grab a single bag is the most historically significant part of Sominsai. I suppose I can’t argue with tradition, but I know what was most important for me. It was an amazing challenge and the feeling that if I could endure this, then I can endure anything else that comes my way.
▼Jassooo! Arggh Fu…! Ja….Sooo…Shi..!
▼Our bodies are mostly numb at this point.
▼Feeling extremely cold, everyone probably has ice in their shoes.
▼I’m the one in the back, you can see my busted shoe.
▼The temperature is -7℃.
▼And an interview after finishing the event.
▼In the rest area, great relationships and friendships are forged.
▼The two of us bonded much more than before. If you want to strengthen a relationship this is a good way.
[ Read in Japanese ]