There in Japan are at least a dozen festivals that in the eyes of tourists will be considered “eccentric” or “strange” in nature. However, I would like to introduce a “naked man” (or at least close to it) festival that takes place during winter in the small-but-warm town of Minami Uonuma in the Niigata prefecture.
A festival claimed by some websites to have over 1,200 years of history; never-the-less a true diamond for those looking for a unique traditional Japanese festival experience and lovers of snowy places. As an ex-participant of this festival, I must say that for tourists this particular celebration has a charm given that, regardless of nationality, visitors are warmly encouraged to take part in the festivities. One cool fact is that one of the local universities, International University of Japan (http://www.iuj.ac.jp/), encourage its international-student population to take part in such activities making the whole event more “foreigner” friendly for visitors (given the rural location of the city).
It is said that “Hadaka Matsuri”, Hadaka meaning “naked” and Matsuri meaning “festival”, originated in the city of Okayama (largest city in Chugoku Region). These particular festivals are celebrated in different locations in Japan in different times of the year; however they are all celebrated for “men’s vitality and courage”, having at its core, the belief that participating in such celebrations will bring bountiful harvest for the region, local and individual prosperity, and of course fertility.
The Bishamonten Naked Festival takes place in the region of Urasa (Niigata Prefecture), specifically in a small rural town called Minami Uonuma City. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the “small rural” description, in terms of cultural heritage the city of Minami Uonuma has much to offer with its festival (I can attest to that for two years, one as a participant).
In brief, the main highlight of the festival is the crowd of men wrestling-jostling each other in a very narrow room in order to be one of the few selected by “gate guardians” granting them the right to pay their respects and receive the blessings of Bishamon, the Buddhist God of war and wealth.
One thing to note is that women are restricted from taking part in this festival and can only be spectators. However, this shouldn’t discourage ladies to enjoy the uniqueness of the festival and its surrounding entertainment offering souvenirs and delicious street food.
As it might be inferred by the festival name, the whole festival takes place in the grounds of the temple of Bishamonten located a few blocks away from the city’s JR station of Urasa.
First of all, participating men wear a traditional Japanese undergarment called a “fundoshi” (a type of loincloth), as well traditional straw sandals to protect their feet from the burning snow. However, this region is known for its heavy snow (and I mean it… at minimum 3 meters of snow) and sub-zero winters. So, how do the men bear such harsh winter conditions with just a loincloth and straw sandals? The answer is simple: sake, LOTS of sake. You see, participating men are highly encouraged to intoxicate before the actual event with sponsored sake of the finest quality from the Niigata region (which by the way is famous for its top quality rice and sake).
At the start of the festival, spectators will be witness to the loud parade of dozens of intoxicated men carrying on their naked chests giant burning candles; each weighing almost 30 kg! From personal experience, those things are heavy and taking them from the starting point to the temple is quite a feature for any drunken naked man that respects himself. Never the less, it is entraining to see the procession of naked men to the grounds of the Bishamonten temple (located in a nearby hill).
However, the main event takes place inside the Temple where all the pushing and “wrestling” happens; in occasions where tension builds up some men might incur in slight fist-fights. The main point of the participants is to “fight” their way towards the Bishamonten altar which is located in an elevated section of the temple guarded by “gatekeepers”. The gatekeepers will determine if someone is allowed to access the altar section by touching them and pulling him away from the jostling crowd. This person then is said to have “good luck” throughout the year. On a personal note, the jostling can tend to be quite serious and fatiguing making the ‘access-grant’ quite a relief and blessing in itself.
The Festival activities are split among two dates every year: March 2nd and March 3rd.
March 2nd Pre-festival night celebration
- Praying from 6-8 pm
- Fire-lighting ceremony from 8 pm
March 3rd Festival day
- Daytime events: children’s parade, sacred rice cake distribution, etc.
- 6-11 p.m.: jostling, sacred lantern and rice cake distribution, etc.
So be sure to mark this great festival in your calendars, which I can truly say has its own magic either as a spectator or as a male participant. Once again, I highly encourage you to support the smaller local events and what they have to offer. After all, one of the greatest experiences since being in Japan is promoting and contributing to the development and continuation of these little lesser known places that tend to remain in the shadows of the bigger city attractions.
Besides, seeing drunken-naked men jostling in the snow is definitely a sight to see!