Over three hundred miles south of the elfin escalator and the monster member, Hadaka Matsuri had already happened at the Saidaiji Temple in Okayama. On a cold Saturday in February, ten thousand naked men had crouched in a freezing fountain, hugging large blocks of ice, and prayed. From a window thirteen feet above them, a priest threw down two eight-inch wooden batons, triggering a fierce battle for possession. The first contestant to thrust the sticks upright into a bucket of rice was blessed with a year’s worth of good fortune. A naked man has a greater ability to absorb evil spirits, and clothes would have simply been in the way.
The Japanese actually have a word, as they have a word for many things we don’t, which describes any attempt to explain them. Nihonjinron refers to issues of Japanese national and cultural identity and how Japan and the Japanese should be understood. The volume of work dedicated to theories about the Japanese has assumed an industrial scale.
Japanese identity, like their soy sauce, was fermented over long centuries of isolation. Out of the pungent darkness of Japanese history, emerged the sauce and the samurai as metaphor. In 552 AD, as the first two silkworm eggs were smuggled in bamboo rods from China to Constantinople, Buddhism entered Japan from the other direction, along with vegetarian influences, and soy-based seasonings. The sauce itself arrived two centuries later, with the monk Kōbō-Daishi, who also brought the kanji Chinese syllabary, and a poem that used every phonetic character, just once.
‘Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.’