Hadaka matsuri 裸祭り
A celebration of nudity
Hadaka matsuri has existed for several centuries and are held in many places in Japan, sometimes in summer but mainly in winter.
This is perhaps the most paradoxical side of Japan: known for their reserve, shyness, and their lack of physical contact, the Japanese appear quite different when they participate in a matsuri (festival). Shouting, showing off, half-naked, huddled together when they gather to carry a mikoshi (shinto portable shrine), often intoxicated, they defy the stereotype of the "typically Japanese" behavior. And hadaka matsuri (nudity festivals), are an excellent example of this!
Originally rites of purification
These holidays differ slightly from one region to another, but all are led by men (no women in these celebrations of virility!) Wearing a short loincloth (called fundoshi) that serves as underwear or thong. Summer festivals often involve parading a mikoshi (portable shrine) through the streets or sometimes carrying it to the sea.
The festivals that take place in winter include a purification ritual with water (most often with ice water!) Following which the "naked men", as they are named, fight for the sacred object (such as a stick, or ball) that has been blessed by a Shinto priest and known to bring good luck. Formerly rites of purification or initiation, some of these festivals have become real shows, attracting thousands of people. They often include games in the mud, which adds to the joy of the participants as well as the spectators. As with other matsuris, there are food and drink stalls and entertainment for children.
Shin-otoko, the Japanese scapegoat
It's said that more than a thousand years ago, the Japanese thought that nudity could drive away evil. In villages where disease or misfortune prevailed, a villager was chosen to walk naked through the village and "reap" all the misfortunes of the inhabitants. He was called the shin-otoko (literally "divine man"). He was then banished, and it was hoped that he would take all the evils with him... As incredible as it may seem this belief has persisted, and every year in cities where a hadaka matsuri takes place, a shin-otoko parade naked, in the heart of winter, and all the "naked men" and spectators try to touch him, as he is supposed to have magical powers to ward off evil...
Winter hadaka matsuri
These are the most fun to watch since not only do these men spend long hours parading almost naked but they are also often sprayed with ice water or rolled about in the mud. Sometimes visitors even take up the challenge and participate in the event. Among the most famous of these "nudity festivals" are:
- Saidai-ji Matsuri at Saidai-ji Temple, Okayama
The most impressive and most famous festival. For more than 500 years, on the evening of the third Saturday in February, after parading in the streets of the city and being "purified" with cold water, some 9,000 nearly naked men gather at Saidai-ji temple. At 10 pm all the lights are put out and two sacred sticks, the shingi, and a hundred other lucky ones are thrown by a Shinto priest into the crowd of men. What follows is an extraordinary melee, where these thousands of near-naked men wrestle one another, fighting for the sacred sticks. The few lucky ones are those who manage to keep hold of their stick and put it in a box filled with rice, called masu. This act is supposed to bring good luck for the year to come...
On the eve of this event at 6 pm, boys from elementary schools in the city also hold a hadaka matsuri. Also dressed in simple loincloths, they must try and catch rice cakes and small gifts. There are a lot of spectators, and it's not easy to follow the event. However, you can reserve premium locations in advance providing a better and safer view!
Saidai-ji Temple is a 15-minute walk from Saidai-ji Station on JR Ako Line from Okayama Station.
Be prepared: the return trains are very crowded!
- Konomiya Hadaka Matsuri at Owari-Okunitama Shrine (Konomiya) in Inazawa, Aichi Prefecture
The small town of Konomiya near Nagoya is believed to be where the shin-otoko custom first originated. Legend has it that in 767 an inhabitant of Konomiya was designated as the scapegoat to stop a plague epidemic in the village. Since then, every year at the end of February, a young man is chosen to be the shin-otoko of the year. The poor man must walk completely naked in freezing weather, shaved from head to toe, and pursued by a horde of men dressed in a single fundoshi, who fight their ways to touch him to release their bad luck!
From Nagoya Station, take the Meitetsu Nagoya Line towards Ichinomiya and get off at Konomiya. Owari-Okunitama shrine is a 10-minute walk from the west exit of the train station.
- Somin-sai at Kokuseki-hi temple in Oshu, Iwate prefecture
Over 1000 years old, this festival is also called "the festival of fire and naked men". It's believed to bring good harvests and good health to the locals. Again held in February, men dressed in fundoshi fight frantically to catch a "sacred bag" (somin bukuro), supposed to bring good luck. But before participating in this event, participants must walk along a snowy path while "purifying" themselves in an icy river. They then warm themselves around the fire, surrounded by curious crowds.
Somin-sai is held annually in late February from 10 pm to 7 am. The battle for the "sacred bag" takes place at Kokuseki-hi temple. Direct access from Tokyo to Mizusawa-Esashi Station by JR Tohoku Shinkansen (2h45m) or from Morioka Station (30 min).
Summer hadaka matsuri
- Hirakata no Doro Inkyo in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture
This festival is also supposed to bring joy and health to the locals of Ageo municipality in Saitama prefecture. Only the task is easier since it takes place in July. Half-naked men parade through the streets carrying portable shrines on their shoulders called and then roll in the mud. It's a joyful and vibrant event!
The festival takes place on the second Saturday of July from 1 pm to 7.30 pm. 15 min by bus from JR Ageo Square Foot Station.
- Ohara hadaka matsuri in Ohara, Chiba Prefecture
This is one of the most famous hadaka matsuri. Every third weekend of September, participants, and spectators pray for good harvests and fruitful fisheries. The bearers of mikoshi are mostly dressed in a simple loincloth. The festival culminates in mid-afternoon on a Saturday, when the men throw themselves into the sea carrying the portable shrines. They then make a final tour of the city and the party continues in the evening with fireworks and other festivities.
On Ohara Beach and Ohara Elementary School, Isumi, Chiba Prefecture. Take the Wakashio Limited Express from Tokyo Station to Ohara (about 70 min).