What do you do for good luck? Do you carry a rabbit’s foot? Do you have a four-leaf clover? Lucky pants perhaps? Or do you strip to your loincloth, chase a naked, malnourished wretch through the streets and beat him within an inch of his life? Was it the latter? Oh good.
The Hakada Matsuri (literally ‘naked festival’) has taken place in Konomiya on the 13th day of the lunar new year since 767 and, with its origins in clearing the town of plague, continues to this day as a way of cleansing the people of illness and, all importantly, bad luck.
So, how’s it done? Well, for starters, some poor bastard is chosen amongst a group of hopeful applicants – oh yes, these misguided idiots see what’s to come as a privilege – to be the shin-otoko, or ‘god-man’. The shin-otoko will be locked away in solitary confinement, fed thin rice gruel with nothing but a four-tonne mochi rice cake, that he cannot eat, for company. He will be shaved completely bare – back, sack, crack – and he will be there for three days.
Now, as that unfortunate soul grows weaker from the gruel and madder from the loneliness, up to ten thousand men fill the streets of the town. So far, so normal, right? Wrong. These fools are milling about in the February chill wearing nothing but fundoshi loincloths (and, despite the name, there is nothing fun about them), sometimes carrying wooden poles, always drinking sake.
As the festival reaches its peak and everyone is just the right level of drunkenness (i.e. oblivious to the cold, oblivious to how silly they look, still just about standing up) the shin-otoko will be released from his confinement. This is where the fun begins.
As the shin-otoko runs naked through the streets, the barely-clad drunkards will attempt to slap, kick and punch the poor bugger. Why, you ask? Well, in doing so they and their family will be rid of any bad luck that they may have carried into the New Year. Obviously.
Of course, when the odds are 10,000 pissed up idiots versus a half starved masochist, there are always going to be concerns that the mental case god-man may be killed. Fortunately the shrine’s priests who organize this insanity have thought of this. They will supply him with special guards who will protect him by tossing buckets of water on the vicious swine. Not a whole lot of protection you might think, but don’t forget: he asked for all this, remember?
Eventually, when everyone’s bad luck has been vanquished, the god fella will, if he’s alive, be chased from the refuge of the shrine, still naked, at three in the bloody morning, with a mud cake on his back symbolising the town’s filthy fortune, and go bury it somewhere.
Then finally, as they recover from the hangovers and hypothermia of the previous day’s exertions, everyone (the god geezer aside as, presumably, he is being treated for malnutrition/numerous cuts and bruises/getting his head read for wanting to take part in the whole mental fiasco) sits down and eats their way through that huge mochi cake.
Sounds pretty civilized, doesn’t it? So, what do you say? Do you want to take part? Want to stand around in a loincloth for hours in the freezing February air? No, thought not. But, if you want to see those foolhardy souls – your intrepid reporter included – stripped and beaten all in the name of fortune, all you need do is hop on a train to Konomiya (the first stop from Nagoya on the Meitetsu towards Gifu), load up on sake and follow the stream of shivering idiots towards Konomiya Shrine. You won’t be disappointed.