Getting Naked in the Winter for a Japanese Festival

The Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri festival takes place every February in the Saidai-ji Temple of Okayama City. It is a must-visit experience for any tourists traveling through the west of Japan. Roughly translating to the "Naked Festival", it features over nine thousand men running around, clad only in a loincloth, splashing around in frigid water, chasing a Shingi stick. Amazingly enough, this scene of bedlam does have historical and religious significance. Why are they naked, and what are they doing? Read on to find all about this unusual Japanese festival!

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As one of the countries with the most festivals held throughout the year, Japan has a very strong festival, or "matsuri" culture. Not only are the festivals in Japan filled with fun, good food, history and cultural values, but some of them are quite bizarre and interesting too.

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Every year on the third week of February, an interesting festival known as Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri takes place at Saidai-ji Temple in Okayama. 

So, what’s so interesting about Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri?

Also known as the Naked Festival, you will find about 10,000 men wearing only loincloths fighting a pair of lucky sticks known as Shingi during the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri. Apart from the cold still filling the air in February, these men will be “purified” with cold water before the fight starts.

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The festivities start at 4pm with a mock Hadaka Matsuri for children, and traditional Taiko drumming and dance performances. In the hours leading up to the main event, groups of men in loincloths run through a pool of freezing water chanting “Wasshoi, Wasshoi." This is a phrase of joyful encouragement, despite the fact that it’s the middle of winter and temperatures typically fall well below freezing.

Precisely at midnight, the lights are turned off all at once, the sacred sticks are thrown into the crowd, and the vehement rush to grab the sticks starts. Even if someone is lucky enough to get hold of the sacred sticks, they are quickly snatched away by others, almost like a rugby game!

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The man who is lucky enough to get the Shingi, which is measuring about 4cm in diameter and 20 cm long, and then thrust the stick into a wooden box known as Masu will be blessed with happiness and good fortune for the rest of the year. The man will be named as the “Lucky Man”.

Besides the Shingi, 100 willow strips which are also considered as the consolation lucky prizes are also thrown to the men. However, to catch one of them is not as easy as you might think considering the crowd and the darkness surrounding the participants.

The origins of this Japanese festival date back 500 years when worshippers competed to receive paper talismans called Go-o thrown by the priest. These paper talismans were tokens of the completion of New Year ascetic training by the priests.

The paper talismans became so popular and were often torn that they were replaced with the wooden sticks that are used in this matsuri today.

As mentioned, Japan loves its festivals, and there's a great variety of them throughout the country, throughout the year. Enrich your Japanese experience by paying one of these festivals a visit. For a list of ideas (one from each prefecture), see our guide to 47 Must See Festivals From Each Japanese Prefecture!

More About Japanese Festivals

Experiencing Japanese festival culture is sure to stand out as a highlight of any trip to Japan. To get a sense of the types of matsuri held in Japan, read our guide to 10 Popular Japanese Festivals

An essential during any Japanese festival is trying all the street food! 100 of the Best Japanese Festival Food is a comprehensive guide to this fun part of Japanese cuisine.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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