Saidai-ji Eyp Hadaka Matsuri - The Naked Festival, held in Japan annually.
Dozens of Naked Festivals happen all over Japan throughout the year but the most famous festival is the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri in Okyama City where the festival originated. Approximately 9000 men participate in this festival hoping to gain good luck for a year.
How did it all start?
The Hadaka Matsuri dates back 500 years to when worshippers used to compete to receive paper talismans called “Go-o”, thrown by a priest for good luck. As the years progressed, a large number of people receiving these talismans were reported to have possessed extremely good fortune and this encouraged more and more worshippers to turn up to the ceremonies. Eventually the talismans were changed from paper to wooden sticks so that they survived the battle.
Unfortunately “Naked Festival” while a literal translation, is really false advertising if that’s what you would be hoping for. It is actually rare that the men taking part are completely naked. More often than not they will compete wearing a Japanese Fundoshi, a traditional loin cloth made of white cotton which was popularly worn by adult Japanese men as underwear before World War II. Imagine a man wearing a cross between a thong and an apron and you’re pretty much there. You can blame America and their introduction of the elasticated briefs for the extinction of this fine garment!
What happens at the festival?
Prior to the event, among generous flows of sake and beer, the participants are asked to prepare papers with their name, blood type and emergency contact number which they then tuck into their loincloths ready for any emergencies. It’s a real party, there’s a children’s event, the ladies perform taiko drums and dance for the crowds and then there are fireworks. The men march through the wintery streets before entering the temple and submerging themselves in cold water for purification. The scantily clad men then cram into the temple as tight as sardines and wait for the priests to drop the sacred sticks from a window about 4 metres above them. As they wait, they chant the word “Wasshoi” repeatedly until the priests appear to make their throw, at which point the lights are turned off for the throw and then back on again for the scrum.
The literal translation of “wasshoi” is “heave ho” but in this context, the deeper meaning of “unifying together” is meant. The scantily clad men, in their droves, then battle between them to grab a pair of the lucky sticks. The pieces of wood are about the size of a small truncheons measuring a diameter of 4cm and a length of 20cm, so I would imagine, pretty difficult to grab a hold of while sandwiched between several thousand raucous Japanese men.
“When in the middle of this epic commotion, I can only imagine it’s comparable to being buried alive. You can’t move, no matter what you do. You’re at the mercy of the crowd…. With each breath, you feel the strain of your muscles, ribs and lungs…. you’re entire body is dripping with sweat, your eyes weigh heavy, utter exhaustion ensues. But what can you do? There’s no backing out of this mess now… It’s all rather gruesome from the inside really.” (Adam Hacker, Japan Travel)
The men who successfully grab one of the two lucky sticks must bring it through the temple gate (at this point, it is still fair game for the sticks to be grabbed by someone else) and if they make it through in one piece, thrust it into a wooden box of rice known as the “masu”. He is then named the “Lucky Man” and is blessed with good fortune for the year. One hundred bundles of willow strips are also thrown into the semi naked crowd and are also considered to be lucky if caught.
It sounds like a dangerous game. Adam Hacker’s friend ended up with a broken rib and unsurprisingly, ambulance sirens replace the overwhelming noise of the fighting, chanting crowd once the battle is over. Black outs, injuries and even deaths (in 2007 one unfortunate participant was crushed to death) are prevalent in festivals of this nature, but the festival is one of such tradition and so highly regarded by the Japanese, the general feeling is that people know the risks when they take part and if they stick to the rules, they’ll probably be ok. When asked about how he felt about the death in 2007, one participant simply replied with “I’ll go. I’ll go until I die.” (Coffee house owner Ishizawa, via Jonathan McNamara)
While 9000 men participate in the festival, in excess of 15000 are able to watch it unfold beneath them and you could be one of the spectators. Tokyo resident and vlogger, American Ronin Dave provides this informative video account of the 2010 festival.
If you’re interested in learning more about this festival, try “Naked Festival: A Photo-Essay” by homoerotic Japanese photographer Tamotsu Yato. It’s accompanied by several essays and an introduction by the famous Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor and film director Yukio Mishima, a three time Nobel Prize in Literature nominee, well regarded for his avant-garde work which displays a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death and political change. However, reviewer David W Plath classes the book as pseudo folklore and muses that it is more a battle of middle class sexual confidence than a true view of the meaning and tradition behind the festival. For a more traditional view, I would suggest attending the festival and seeing it for yourself.
Is the “Naked Festival” not wacky enough for you?? How about making it over to Japan in April for the Kanamara Matsuri? For anyone who doesn't know Japanese, that would be Penis Festival!
Saidai-ji Temple, Saidaiji-naka, Okyama City, Japan
The event takes place on the third Saturday of February each year. In 2016 you can enjoy this spectacle on the 20th February.
How much does it cost?
It costs 3000 yen (approx. £18) to take part in the festival. This covers the cost of your fudoshi which someone will fit for you, some wooden shoes and your supply of sake! Spectators do not need a ticket.
What time does the event begin?
Prior to the main festival, there is an event for young boys beginning at 3.30pm where primary school kids compete for rice cakes. This is followed by taiko drum performances and dancing by the ladies at approximately 5.45pm. From 7pm for half an hour, there is a fireworks show, following which the men gradually make their way into the temple to be purified before the main event which begins at 10pm.
How do I get there?
The temple is a 10 minute walk from Saidaiji Station. Saidaiji Station is on the JR Ako Line from Okayama Station on the Sanyo Shinkansen. Okayama is a 3 hour train journey from Tokyo.
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