About This Festival
Getting naked in Japan isn’t really a big deal. From a young age, the communal masses have bathed together at the onsen (geothermal hot spring). This ancient purification ceremony centers around the belief that luck can be obtained through ritual. Part religious pilgrimage, part epic competition, the Hadaka Matsuri is not for the faint of heart or the fearful of flesh.
The Godly Man, The Shinto Ono
According to Shinto legend, the Hadaka Matsuri dates back to the Nara period around 767 AD when misfortune and disease plagued the region. Collective belief held that nakedness could absorb bad luck and evil. A man from each village was forced to serve as the Shin-Otoko, or Godly Man. He then had to shave off all his body hair before walking into a gauntlet of eager villagers, who believed that touching him would cast away all their troubles. Shouldering the ills of thousands of people wasn’t an easy task for one man. To make matters worse, at day’s end, the Shin-Otoko was banished, along with the entire population’s misery.
More than a thousand years have passed since the first Naked Festival. Today, the age-old tradition is still celebrated across the country in cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Inazawa City, and Sendai, although a reversal of fortune has occurred over time. The role of the now-willing Shin-Otoko is considered a great honor instead of a form of punishment. As the blessed one, the Godly Man spreads his prosperity into the crowd.
Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri
The most famous of the naked festivals is the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri in the city of Okayama in western Honshu. This particular Hadaka Matsuri has blown up to legendary proportions. More than 10,000 loin-clothed participants gather at the Saidai-ji temple to vie for the title of “the lucky man,” an honor achieved by catching the shingi or sacred lucky sticks. The one “lucky man” must not only capture the symbolic batons, he must successfully defend himself against 10,000 contending men before thrusting them into a container filled with rice. His efforts are well rewarded, however: Bestowed upon him will be abundance, wealth (a cash prize), and bragging rights for an entire year.
The festivities start at 4pm with a mock Hadaka Matsuri for children, and traditional Taiko drumming and dance performances. In the hours leading up to the main event, groups of men in loincloths run through a pool of freezing water chanting “Wasshoi, Wasshoi,” a phrase of joyful encouragement, despite the fact that it’s the middle of winter and temperatures typically fall well below freezing.
Getting a hold of the sacred sticks is far from easy. Precisely at 10pm, the lights are turned off, and priests throw the coveted object from the top of the temple, which is located on an elevated platform. To confuse things even more, dozens of other bundles are tossed into the mix. When the actual prize is thrown, all hell breaks loose. It’s a free for all between the young, old, professional Sumo wrestlers, and the yakuza, or Japanese mafia, whom you’ll recognize from the black loincloths. In a crowd this big, the flow of movement is entirely out of control, and masses of people tumble down the stairs in waves. We recommend that you stay clear of the temple’s pillars and the top and bottom of the stairs.
Some do-nots to consider:
- Fighting is prohibited. But be warned: Battles for the shingi have been known to turn violent.
- No drinking is allowed.
- Tattoos are prohibited. Most participants cover them with skin-colored packaging tape.
None of the naked festivals are actually naked. Participants are required to wear traditional loincloths called fundoshi. Like the mawashi of Sumo wrestlers, this traditional dress allows for freedom of movement yet won’t come undone if tied correctly. Want to come to the party but have nothing to wear? You can purchase a fundoshi on site. The Japanese take the fundoshi wrapping ritual seriously. We won’t ruin the surprise, but let’s say you will be laughing and crying at the same time.
Out of the 10,000 participants of the festival each year, there are only around 50 foreigners. You will be welcomed with open arms but please act respectfully; this is an ancient, religious tradition, and you are a humble guest.