If you read in your daily newspaper that somewhere in a small town about an hour from where you lived, grown men and babies would come together in a mud pit from 1-3pm on a Tuesday afternoon in February to worship the soil for the upcoming planting season, would you say you were too busy to go? Would the PTA meeting take precedent? Taking the dog to the vet? I think not. I blocked out the day on my calendar and set about finding a friend to come with me. I wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a “Naked” festival without proper back up. But everyone was busy. And probably not as intrigued as I was. No problem, I would pack a few snacks, bring my new Nikon and go it alone. But then Libby called, back from the states the night before and she said she had a million excuses not to go but that I should pick her up at 11. The drive was easy and as we approached the main part of town, we kept our eyes peeled for naked men. We didn’t really have the exact location and were hoping for some local input. We heard fireworks going off at the shrine so we knew we were close but eventually Libby had to go into the Koban (police station) to get directions. She was back in a flash with a map and sure enough, we came to the parking lot next to the mud pit where a few hundred people were surrounding it. We made our way to the front and claimed our spots. Looking around, we quickly realized we were the only foreign women in the crowd. Thank god for the back up. The crowds continued to grow, surrounding the olympic sized swimming pool mud pit. A few minutes before 1pm, the school children arrived in their matching yellow hats. They crawled through the legs of the spectators making their way to the front which later on would provide for some excellent entertainment. At exactly 1pm, more fireworks went off at the shrine above us, and the procession began. Men dressed solely in a white loin cloth (fundoshi) and white tabi (the split toe socks) with a pink or red bandana around their heads, brought forth small children, from infants to toddlers, to be “baptized” in the mud. Each baby reacted differently to the face painting. Some slept right through it. Some wailed, kicking their arms and feet, desperate to be out of the arms of the strange men and away from the laughing crowds. The men ranged in age from early adulthood to grandfather, some skinny and pale, others bronze and buff. The procession continued as the men would come and go, getting new babies to paint. Most of the men had difficulty holding the children and at times looked close to dropping them. A few of the men were seasoned professionals, quietly whispering in the ears of their charges, and delicately painting kanji characters on their foreheads. These well behaved children would be shown around to the crowd, the men proud of their ability to keep the babies happy. On the way out of the mud pit, babies in tow, the men would walk close to the school children in the crowds and kick the mud off their feet and on to the happy faces of the children. It became a game, who could kick the most mud and which kid in the crowd would be covered in it. The baby pageant went on for an hour and when the point came when you had just about had enough of screaming babies, the fireworks went off signaling the end of the first part of the festival. The noise level of the crowd increased. They knew what was coming next. The men came running down the path and jumped into the mud pit. They broke off into four “teams” and the smallest of each team climbed onto the shoulders of the largest. The four sets of chicken fighters came to the inner circle and started the match. Within a few seconds they were all in the mud, throwing it at each other, wrestling in the dark water and basically having the most fun they’ve had all year. After ten minutes in the cold wet mud, the men would run out and come into the crowds, painting the faces of the people lining the crowds with the wet earth. The school children ended up with most of it but the adults were not off limits. Pretty soon the crowds started to look like participants. The pure white loin cloths and tabi socks were now black, the men covered in thick mud, ran back through the crowds and up to the shrine on the hill where a bonfire awaited them. They drank hot sake and ate bean filled pastries to get back their strength. This run to the mud pit, chicken fight dance and bonfire ceremony continued for the rest of the hour. Libby and I followed them up to the shrine on their second go round and were painted by several of the men. Once our faces had mud, the crowds of photographers turned to us and started clicking away. As the only non-Japanese spectators, we quickly became a good photo op. Up at the bonfire, the men shared their sake with us and were happy to pose for a few close ups, flexing their bi-ceps and showing off their mud covered bodies. By 3pm, Libby and I were back in the car, our faces covered in mud, our camera disks full of great photos. After buying onigiri and tea in the 7-11 and cleaning up in the bathroom, we spent the rest of the ride home wondering if we had just witnessed the origin of the Japanese obsession with cleanliness.