Picture this: you’re naked, with nothing but a thin piece of cloth around your manhood. It’s the middle of winter and you’ve been shaved head to toe, with only your eyebrows spared from the razor. You’ve been subsisting on a basic diet of white rice and miso soup for the past 3 days. Suddenly, you’re pulled from solitary confinement, pushed outside, and forced to run a gauntlet of thousands of thronging, drunken men (also clad in loincloths) who are throwing icy water on you as you try to avoid being touched, slapped and trampled. Sounds like great fun, eh? This is what the locals down in Konomiya call entertainment, and they have done for the last 1,300 years. At the annual Hadaka Matsuri (also known as the Naked Man Festival), despite the countless human rights violations being dished out to a single hapless naked guy, the other 10,000 or so naked men around him don’t seem too bothered. Looking in from the outside, this appears to be an event based on the concept of ‘complete indifference to suffering’.
The Hadaka Matsuri is one of the oldest in Japan (and in a nation where there are more festivals celebrated annually than there are days in the year, that’s quite a feat), and its large scale and obvious strangeness have attracted worldwide media coverage in recent years, enticing television crews from countries as far flung as the Netherlands and Australia. The festival originated in the first year of the Nara Period, which was 767 as far as I can remember, when the Emperor ordered the entire nation to offer prayers to dispel a plague that Japan was facing at the time. Apparently the best way to combat massive plagues back then was to consecrate a man and make him bear the sins of all the citizens, which they happily handed to him in the form of a few thousand hefty slaps on his bare arse (or whichever part of his body they could grab). Even though 1,300 years have passed and the threat of major plagues is now limited to the influx of eikaiwa teachers, the town of Konomiya in Aichi Prefecture continues the tradition of Hadaka Matsuri – much to the pleasure of the 200,000 people who converge on the streets to witness what is surely one of the craziest (and most dangerous) festivals in Japan.
Here’s what happens, then. Every year the festival takes place on January 13th of the lunar calendar (which officially makes it February 20th in this year’s solar calendar), though the search for the ‘shin-otoko’ (unlucky naked bastard) begins well in advance. The only way to apply for such an honor is to receive an official introduction from a previous shin-otoko. That way, the folks at Konomiya Shrine know for sure that he’s a worthy candidate and is up to the enormous task. Which brings us to another point: sorry, fellow females, but this is a boys-only event. The women have to be content with sending their sins in writing to a giant pole made of cloth that the men get to carry down the street to the shrine. The applicants (usually 4 or 5 men) attend an official ceremony where they perform a ‘lucky dip’ to decide who will be this year’s shin-otoko.
Once chosen, the terrified man is sent away to a room, alone, to spend three sanctifying days and nights eating rice and miso soup and working up the courage to take on thousands of naked revelers looking to relieve their bad luck on him. While this is happening, a lot of other holy preparation is taking place: a post is erected outside the front of the shrine to mark the beginning of the festival, an enormous mochi (rice cake) weighing 4 tons and standing 2.5 meters tall is offered to the shin-otoko (needless to say, he can’t eat all of it) and those planning to participate are buying their fundoshi (loincloth) from, er, wherever it is people buy loincloths from these days. The official naked part of the festival begins on the day from around 3pm, when the shin-otoko is finally presented to the crowd – a great mob of properly soused, slap-happy men, carrying buckets of icy water and looking to purge their sins on his freshly purified, naked flesh. Then, at the climax of the festival, he launches into the middle of the crowd, and the men frantically scramble to touch him. The more touches, the more bad luck is transferred to the shin-otoko, and the harder it is for him to escape to the safety of the shrine (it’s been known to take anything from 30 minutes to nearly 2 hours).
That’s about it for the daily festivities, but if you’re interested in checking out the more religiously significant part of the festival, you can head back to Konomiya Shrine at 3am the next morning, when the shin-otoko, bloodied and bruised, is given a large rice cake rolled in ash from the burnt offerings to carry on his back. He’s then pelted with peaches and willow branches as he limply runs away into the darkness, looking for a place to bury the rice cake, which contains all of the previous day’s evil and bad luck. Finally, he’s allowed to return home without fear of being slapped, trampled or kicked, and with nothing to show for his heroic performance except badly cut knees.
If you’re male, free on Saturday February 20th and completely stupid, you can also take part in the Hadaka Matsuri. In recent years, foreign participation has increased significantly in the spirit of internationalism, and the good folk of Konomiya are only too happy for people from all over the world to add to the number of bare bottoms on show. Be warned, though, that the festival can get pretty violent. It’s very easy to cop an injury here, be it from the severe temperatures or the crushing crowds, or simply as a result of over-consumption. Yes, sake can keep you warm when you’re wearing only a diaper, and it can also numb the pain when you fall to the ground from the top of the ritual pole, but it won’t prevent you being taken by ambulance to Konomiya Hospital and treated for alcohol poisoning, hypothermia and a broken leg.
What if you have higher aspirations and are aiming for the biggest honor – being chosen as the shin-otoko himself? According to Matsuda-san, one of the Shinto priests at Konomiya Shrine, the chances of a foreigner applying and being selected “are certainly not entirely zero”, but he adds a reminder that you need to receive the recommendation of a former shin-otoko. Time for a little naked networking, perhaps.
If you’re keen to join the craziness at this year’s Hadaka Matsuri, but would like a little help with getting ready, business hotel Wayoukan offers special festival deals for guests, including a complimentary loincloth. Check the website (www.wayoukan.co.jp) for details. Reservations are essential, and it’s also best to have a Japanese speaker handy if you’re unfamiliar with the festival and Konomiya itself. To get to Konomiya, jump on the Meitetsu Line at Meitetsu Nagoya Station in the direction of Ichinomiya and Gifu. All trains stop at Konomiya. The frequency of services will increase on the day to accommodate the huge crowds, though it’s still best to get there early if you can. The train takes between ten and 15 minutes from Nagoya Station. Happy Hadaka-ing!