Every third Saturday in February is Okayama Prefecture’s Hadaka Matsuri, Japan’s largest “naked festival.” Get ready to get naked!
In what continually proves to be a popular spectator event for ladies, the hadaka matsuri features over 9,000 men wearing just loincloths and tabi socks attempting to prove their manhood. The goal is to be the lucky guy to grab the shingi, a stick of sacred wood, thrown into the crowd by a priest standing in the rafters of Saidaiji City’s Kannon-in temple.
Saidaiji City celebrated the 500th anniversary of the naked festival in 2009 and the event is still going strong. The extravaganza is a splendid concoction of alcohol, nearly naked men, subzero temperatures and a dash of the matsuri cheer wasshoi!
Dozens of groups of local men, representing their neighborhood or local club, participate in the event every year. And most have been planning their strategies months ahead of time. The idea is for one of their group members to catch the sacred shingi when it is dropped at exactly 10 p.m. after a short period of total darkness. The lucky man who can catch — and manage to hold on to — the shingi will enjoy a year of health, wealth and prosperity.
Sounds fun, right? But what really goes on inside that morass of some 9,000 male bodies? Afterall, this is a test of manhood, and not just some gathering of guys in skimpy attire for a bit of male bonding under the temple rafters. We had a hunch that as spectators we weren’t getting the full story, so we interviewed a couple of the participants, one from Scotland and one from England, to get the lowdown on what it is like to be in the throng of men. Needless to say, we were quite surprised at what they had to say!
Keep in mind that some of the rules of this ancient celebration have changed only recently. Whereas the shingi used to be dropped at the fortuitous hour of midnight, it was preempted by a new 10 p.m. time slot in 2010 “in an attempt to reduce the affects of fatigue and alcohol.” Furthermore, they are now asking people not to drink alcohol at all before or during the event, something which I doubt could be enforced since drinking has always been an integral part of matsuri in Japan.
Here’s a quick interview with the participants who give us the inside story. If by the end of the article you still think you’d like to participate, then we’ll give you those details too!
RocketNews24: When one first arrives to see the festival it’s like, wow, look look at all those guys in loin cloths! They’re running through the streets in this freezing cold weather! Isn’t it… cold?!
Participant 1: “Despite the fact that it’s February and the spectators are probably pretty cold, we’ve all jogged around Saidaiji on the way to the temple, the whole journey there chanting “Wasshoi Wasshoi!” whilst linked shoulder to shoulder. We also traipsed through a freezing cold pool of water! But when the action starts and flesh hits flesh all of the competitors are hot and sweaty.”
Participant 2: “From about 7 p.m., we met up and started drinking! There are loads of yatai food stalls selling carbs and protein-based food for the mission ahead. Then we got changed into our loincloths and tabi socks around 9 p.m. and ran around in the freezing cold cheering Wasshoi! and drinking even more.”
RN24: As a spectator, you’re watching from the outside and just keep thinking, wow, that’s a lot of butts! What’s it really like inside?
Participant 1: “Once we got closer to the temple we joined the other groups and the scale of the event truly became clear…there were thousands of us! As soon as the movements started the adrenaline climbed to previously unreached heights and instinct took over. What followed was the most primal experience I’ve ever had, we wrestled, we climbed over bodies, we wrangled and struggled to break free from iron grips, we endured pulling and twisting of hair and… appendages.”
Participant 2: “It’s not for the fainthearted! I mean it REALLY separates the men from the boys. It is literally a culturally sanctioned mass Fight Club. The police are terrified bystanders. I saw guys get knocked out, concussed, broken ribs, one guy got his leg pissed on.”
RN24: What kind of strategies are involved to catch the sacred pieces of wood?
Participant 1: “The shingi are thrown from a height (like a first floor balcony) within the temple, so the best and most popular position to be in is within the temple. However, tactically you want to be there with your team with as many of you as possible in the same place. That way if the shingi comes your way, you will have a high percentage of the many hands gripping it for dear life. You’ll also be able to protect it and try to navigate through the thousands to freedom.”
Participant 2: “Several different shingi are indeed thrown in, but only two are the real ones, so it means loads of different fights break out as soon as they’re thrown in. Apparently the best way to get them out safe is to stick together, with one guy in the middle surrounded by his teammates, and then he shoves the shingi down his fundoshi and smuggles it out.”
RN24: I’ve heard that security are on hand to help participants who may get into trouble and that you’re told to put your name and emergency information on a piece of paper and affix it to the inside of your loincloth, just in case. How dangerous is it?
Participant 1: It takes a lot of rough and tumble, a lot of patience and a lot of focus. There are arms, legs, heads, shoulders, chests and bollocks everywhere, at times you wonder how you are able to still breathe but breathe you do. At times in the midst of the throng it feels like you are facing a wall of flesh, other times there seems to be an undulating rhythm to the movement of the masses, much like waves hitting against a concrete wave-breaker… but it never seems unassailable, the adrenaline takes care of that.
RN24: Did you ever get your hands on the shingi?
Participant 1: “The first shingi happened to land in the squall very close to where I was and one of my team-mates grappled with it but a few fell which led to our group tumbling and losing control. I managed to force my way up the stairs to inside the temple but I got caught by the backwards movement of the guys in front of me and they launched me backwards from the top step. My fall was broken by the guys behind me. There are scrapes, hair-tugging, strangers grabbing your bits but none of it is vicious or malicious so you roll with the punches. The priests toss water down on those lucky enough to be in the canopy, so squeezing through the wall of limbs is made a little easier by this lubrication. I’m fairly sure that the whiskey also helped!”
Participant 2: “We saw some shingi being thrown to the bottom of the steps and so we jumped on the guy who caught them, then some guy on his team jumped from the top of the steps and clawed my mate’s back, drawing blood and leaving a scar. The whole thing is an excuse to get horribly drunk and destroy any one who comes near you.”
RN24: Did anything bad happen to you while you were in the mosh pit?
Participant 1: I shouted over to my friend which offended an exceptionally large man who stampeded over to me, grabbed me by the neck and threw me like a wet towel, at which stage my host team appeared from nowhere and surrounded me.
“The feeling of pride of getting your hand on the shingi was matched only by the focus on trying to secure the grip, the determination required in trying to move in the same direction as your team-mates and trying to block intruders.
RN24: Did you ever feel like you had to get out of there? Like you couldn’t handle any more?
Participant 1: “No, it’s suddenly over and there is a lasting sense of euphoria despite not actually winning. The crowds start dispersing, you start to see the faces of friends you were trying to find all night and everyone is smiling.”
Participant 2: “It’s all over within an hour. Basically the police surround you and start peeling you off one-by-one from any remaining pockets of fighting, so it kind of peters out in an ‘orderly’ fashion.”
RN24: Any advice for those who might want to try participating in this year’s naked festival?
Participant 1: “At the end of the day, fortune favours the brave, so if you want to win you need to get stuck right in. Fringe opportunists will neither enjoy the full experience nor walk away as victors. Being a participant was one of the best experiences of my life from start to finish. Whilst I feel a niggle of regret at upsetting the one Japanese guy, it was an overwhelming positive, humbling and joyous occasion and I will at some future time participate again.”
Participant 2: So why do it? Testosterone! I have rarely felt more alive than in those moments, on a sheer visceral primal level. The sights, the sounds, the smells… And the ladies love it. Biology!”
How to Participate
Still think you’d like to participate? The festival this year if February 2o. Male foreign visitors can sign up on the day of the festival. Just look for the sign-up tent. Fundoshi and tabi socks are available on site for 1,000 yen (US$8.80) each or in the shops lining Gofuku street.
Tip: The event is free for spectators, however if you want to get closer for better photographs, pay the 500 yen fee to get ringside (US$4.40). It’s definitely worth it!
After the festival, around 11:30 or so, foreigners tend to go to Pinball Cafe or the Aussie Bar in Okayama City. There you may even get to talk to some of the previously unclad participants!
Directions: To get to Saidaiji City, transfer from the JR Okayama Station to the Ako Line and get off at Saidaiji Station.
Address: 8-8-3 Saidaijinaka, Okayama Higashi-ku, Okayama, Japan, 704-8116 (Google Maps)
Official Website (Japanese only)
Photos courtesy of Jon Kelbie, Junko Ogura, and Kentaro Ogura. Top photo: Wikipedia (CES)