When most people think of Japan, they think of tranquility, peaceful shrines and delicate foods. Not many would think of thousands of naked men, gallons of alcohol and grievous bodily harm. But nationwide, there are a collection of Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Festivals, which may seem brutal and barbaric, but are grounded in tradition and command respect in the surrounding areas.
Many believe that the first Hadaka Matsuri came about during the Nara Period, more specifically 767AD. The Governor of the Owari Prefecture (modern day Aichi), visited the Owari Shosha Shrine, also known as Konomiya Shrine, in an attempt to drive off bad spirits and bring a time of prosperity and health. This came at a time when a plague was running rampant in Japan and Emperor Shotoku was doing whatever he could to relieve the nation from fear of catching the disease.
At the time, low ranking Shinto priests, known as Shanin, would catch one (normally unwilling) poor person to become the Shin-Otoko, or Godly-Man. According to Shinto traditions, naked people have the power to absorb and carry others luck, so during these tough times, the Shin-Otoko was sent through the streets naked and everyone would scrabble to touch him, in turn hopefully passing on their bad-luck. The Shin-Otoko was then driven from the town, taking its ill will with him.
Although there are many variations of the festival still celebrated in Japan, the Konomiya Hadaka Matsuri held in the Aichi Prefecture is one of the largest. Around ten thousand men (of all ages), band together and carry huge stalks of bamboo towards the central shrine. The men are clad in simple white loincloths, known as fundoshi. Besides the bamboo, which many of the younger and more energetic participants will try and climb, each team carries a whistle to command the troop and perhaps more importantly, enough sake (rice wine) to keep everyone inebriated for the entire day.
Once every team has delivered their gift of bamboo, they line a long path leading to the temple, waiting for the year’s Shin-Otoko. It is a great honor to be picked for this position and on receiving news that you will be the Shin-Otoko, you must go through thorough purifying rituals, which include the complete shaving of your bodily hair, making the luck that much easier to transfer.
Luck is also what makes the Konomiya festival a little different from others around Japan. Instead of the Shin-Otoko sucking up other’s bad-luck, he is said to exude good fortune and thousands try to touch him in order to take a little of his good-luck. Only official members of the festival can touch the Shin-Otoko, so unless you are wearing a fundoshi, you won’t be able to get close to, let alone see the lone Shin-Otoko.
But if you want a little luck, then each of the Hadaka-Otoko (Naked Men) carry a strip of colored cloth called Naoigire (なおいぎれ), which they can tear and give out to passers-by who may ask for it. The Hadaka-Otoko do so, as members of the public aren’t allowed to enter the shrine during the festival and they act as messengers and pass on people’s prayers.
As the Shin-Otoko enters the throng of thousands, everyone racers towards him. As they reach fever-pitch, ice cold water is thrown over them, which not only causes a mysterious steam to rise from the mass of bodies, but is also said to calm and sober the anxious and intoxicated members of the festival.
Although there is a little controversy surrounding the festival, with it being so common that these drunken and scantily clad men hurt themselves (and unfortunately others), it is an ancient celebration that is revered by many and the welcoming and warm reception that the people of Konomiya offer to those who visit for this one special day is truly amazing and make this one annual festival worth making a date of.