10,000 grown men in loincloths battle to grab two lucky sticks thrown out of a window by a priest.
And this is only one of the three most eccentric festivals in Japan.
In the largest “Hadaka Matsuri” or Naked Festival, about 10,000 loin-clothed participants gather at the Saidai-ji temple in Okayama.
The “lucky man” must not only capture the lucky sticks, he has to defend himself against 10,000 competitors before thrusting them into a wooden box (the masu).
His efforts are well rewarded, however: He gets abundance, wealth (a cash prize), and bragging rights for an entire year.
The Godly Man
The Naked Festival dates back 500 years when worshippers used to compete to receive paper talismans thrown by the priest.
A common belief was that nakedness could absorb bad luck and evil. An unlucky man from each village was caught and forced to serve as the Shin-Otoko, or Godly Man. He had to shave off all his body hair before walking into a gauntlet of eager villagers, who believed that touching him would cast away all their troubles.
Shouldering the ills of thousands of people wasn’t an easy job for one man. To make matters worse, at day’s end, the Shin-Otoko was banished, along with the entire population’s misery.
Luckily, the role of the now-willing Shin-Otoko is considered a great honor instead of a form of punishment. As the blessed one, the Godly Man shares his prosperity with the crowd.
In the hours leading up to the main event, groups of men in loincloths run through a pool of freezing water chanting “Wasshoi, Wasshoi,” a phrase of joyful encouragement, despite the sub-zero temperatures.
Precisely at 10 pm, the lights are turned off, and priests throw the sacred stick or shingi from the top of the temple.
To confuse things even more, dozens of other bundles are tossed into the mix. When the actual prize is thrown, all hell breaks loose. It’s a free for all between the young, old, professional Sumo wrestlers, and the yakuza, or Japanese mafia, whom you’ll recognize from black loincloths and blonde hair.
Fuelled by alcohol, fights, and skirmishes are common. With only two 20cm-long shingi and 10,000 or so desperate men, the meek are not going to win this contest.
To claim victory, and supposedly a year of good fortune and happiness (the prize money maybe helps with the former?), the sticks must be delivered back to the temple gates.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.