Every third weekend in February, nine thousand nearly nude men brave the cold in a night of gladiatorial combat at Sadaiji Temple in Okayama prefecture. The reward? A talisman granting a year of happiness and luck, or at the very least a whopping tale to tell when you get back home.
There are a handful of Hadaka Matsuris, or “Naked Man” festivals around Japan, but the oldest and biggest is held in Okayama. It dates back over five hundred years, to when priests used to toss paper good luck charms, called go-o, into an eagerly waiting crowd. Those lucky enough to snag one reported unusually good luck, so the custom gained popularity. As demand for the charms increased, so did the vigor of the competition, until the paper goods were no longer up to the challenge. The go-o evolved into the more durable wooden shingi stick, and Hadaka Matsuri was born.
So what’s it like to compete in a Hadaka Matsuri? First, you make your way to the changing tent sometime in the evening. For the best chance of getting a spot on stage, it’s best to get (un)dressed by 8 pm. Outside the tent, you can buy a fundoshi, a traditional form of Japanese underwear resembling a loincloth, as well as a pair of tabi, which you might recognize as those two-toed ninja socks (2000 yen for a fundoshi/tabi set). At the entrance to the tent, pay a 1000 yen entrance fee and write your blood type and contact information on a registration card, which will be stuffed inside your fundoshi in case of emergency. Next, the adventure really gets started as you strip down, and find a staff member to tie you up. Brace yourself, it’s a wild ride.
Finally, you’re all fired up and ready to go. Hop out into the street and join one of the numerous open teams preparing to run through the cold night. Linking arms, four abreast, you race through the streets, fist pumping into the air to the rhythm of the omnipresent cries of “wasshoi, wasshoi”. The street feeds into the temple grounds, and a few minutes later comes the first true trial of the evening as you plunge into a freezing pool, waist deep. This water purifies the body and mind, preparing participants to step onto the main stage of the temple. Some take their time, splashing about while others sprint through as quickly as humanly possible. As you emerge on the other side, camera flashes and cheers from the crowd give you the strength to fight the cold away and proceed to the main temple where a priest splashes you with water from the second story. Re-energized, you exit the main stage and loop around again for a second lap. Or a third, or even fourth if you’re feeling hearty.
But that’s just the warmup. The main event is yet to come. The priest drops the lucky shingi stick at 10 pm, but the stage starts to get packed from 9 pm onwards, so it’s best to get in position well before that. Remember that 9,000 people are competing for a spot on a stage no more than ten meters across, so it would be an understatement to say it’s anything less than riotous. Nevertheless, runners who stake out a claim early and fight to keep from getting pushed out stand a good chance of maintaining a highly desired center spot. Just be prepared for pressure unlike anything you’ve ever experienced at the wildest concert, and if you find yourself getting pushed close to the perilous steps, get out. This is not a festival for the faint of heart.
At 10 pm, the lights go out, and the priest drops the lucky shingi stick, as well as a few secondary luck charms, which double as fakes to distract attention. The fight is usually over in a matter of minutes. The shingi is quickly smuggled off the main stage, and fights break out throughout the grounds as men try to take it from the bearer before he can get it out of the main gate. A number of them will be fighting over the secondary sticks, but you can tell if you’re near the real deal by the sweet smell of incense. Failing that, you can listen for cries of “nioi! nioi!” (“smell”, “smell”) to determine which scrum is the legitimate one.
And that’s it! March out of the gate proudly, as you’ve survived one of Japan’s wildest festivals. Even if you didn’t get the shingi, you’ll probably feel blessed with luck just to have had such an incredible experience.
The main event is lads only, but ladies can enjoy the action too from the audience. Tickets run about 1000 yen per person, and it’s quite a spectacle. Additionally, early in the evening women in robes march through the freezing pool of water and around the temple track, before being showered with water by the priest.
So do you have what it takes to participate or even watch this crazy festival?