When one of my fellow ALTs in a nearby prefecture invited me to watch the Hadaka Matsuri in Okayama prefecture in February, I said, “what’s that?”
Maybe you can imagine how quickly I said YES when he said it was a festival where 9,000 men wear fundoshi (basically a loincloth) and run around in a temple chasing sticks.
Yo, sign me up!
What It Is
Hadaka Matsuri (translated into “Naked Man Festival“) is a festival over 500 years old held at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama City. It’s billed as “one of the most eccentric festivals in Japan“. (I think the Penis Festival takes top place.) It began with priests throwing paper talismans which participants fought over for good luck, and evolved into today’s festival with thousands and thousands of participants who fight tooth and nail for little bundles of blessed sticks that a priest throws down onto them. The bundles of sticks are called shingi, and there’s a few decoy/smaller sets thrown plus a big real one with incense inside – that’s the big winner, though the small ones are lucky too.
This festival is no joke. A guy died in it last year! You have to try to picture 9,000 men all smashing into each other trying to get closer to where the priest throws the sticks. Then if a guy is lucky enough to get one, he has to make it out through the rest of the guys to the main gate, without getting his ass beat and stick stolen. It’s not easy.
Some guys came out looking like pros – they were wearing their fundoshi but also put on elbow and knee guards. After seeing my one of my friends covered in road rash from being dragged on the gravel ground, I think those guys knew what was up. Watching the seething mass of humanity that was the men on the temple platform trying to get closer… well, I’ve never seen anything like that. It was a little horrifying to watch as men fell off the stairs. I can see how someone could easily get crushed or pulled under.
Only men can participate for religious and traditional reasons, and this is strictly enforced. I saw everything from high school boys to 80-year-old men (two groups of people I have no interest in seeing in a loincloth). I think most guys go with friends or a team. My friends went with the international team headed up by Okayama AJET. Okayama AJET has a brilliantly terrifying and accurate Naked Man Festival Safety Information page which anyone thinking about participating should read.
Participants pay a fee for their fundoshi and special tabi (those ninja-style white socks with 2 toes) to wear. They also need to pay professional dressers to help them into their fundoshi properly – part of getting it tied involves jamming it between butt cheeks and using the tent pole as leverage to wedge it tightly shut!
Usually the winners at this festival are members of judo clubs who are not fucking around when it comes to getting the shingi. These guys make a plan beforehand to get the guy with the stick out, including faking injuries or decoy guys faking that they have the stick. They use colored tape in a special pattern on their hand so they can identify their teammates quickly in the crowd, and use code words. It’s SERIOUS business.
I obviously did not participate and I watched the boys with two other friends. After seeing the aftermath, I’m glad we were watching! I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for the dudes, but I had such a great time as a spectator.
We paid 1000yen (about $10) for special spectator tickets. You don’t have to pay, but the free viewing area is along the sides of the “pen” in the temple so you are limited in what you can see as it’s flat. The 1000yen spectator area is on the top of a hill at the side of the temple so the viewing area is much better. That being said, the people in the 5000yen (about $50) seats in the bleachers in front of us definitely got the best view. I would pay for seats next time because we had to stand in our area for about 3 hours before the event started. My legs were killing me!
What Happens: The Buildup
While the dudes were getting yanked into their fundoshi, we walked around the temple and took in the super-festive atmosphere. There were TONS of people watching – I heard more than 10,000 people were there!
We saw taiko drummers:
We went to the yatai (street food stalls) which were jam-packed with people …. I’ve been to some big festivals in Japan already but I’ve seen yatai this full before:
I ate sooooooooooo much good food. I don’t know if it was on purpose, but I felt like most of the yatai stalls were offering particularly phallic foods that night – lots of sausages and banana treats!!
After downing some food and slamming some lime chuhai (canned mixed liquor drinks) to warm us up, we made our way down to the pen to watch the entrances.
What Happens: Before the Drop
For hours before the sticks drop, the men run around in circles around and through the temple, screaming “WASSHOI WASSHOI“, getting cold water thrown on them and running through a freezing cold pool. Can I remind you that this was the middle of February? I was wearing a HeatTech turtleneck, a long flannel tunic, an extra-long hoodie, a jacket + scarf + beanie + mitts, leggings with jeans on top and two pairs of socks. I was the perfect temperature, but the boys weren’t wearing much more than a pillowcase, AND getting cold water dumped on them. We hoped they had been drinking before coming out.
The guys were in really good spirits though and adrenaline (and let’s be real, a fuckload of testosterone) was in the air. I was taking videos for one of my friends who was participating, and I got lots of guys coming up to me for high fives. People seemed happy and amused to see foreigners participating and watching. I was pretty happy too, seeing 9,000 dudes in underwear.
The men just kept coming and coming, row after row with their arms around each other, screaming and cold and wet. They were so happy that I grossly underestimated how violent things were about to get. After a few hours of watching the guys run through the temple and a freezing cold pool, all spectators were told to leave the pen “for your own safety” and only the police and paramedics were left in there. The men all disappeared somewhere and we made our way up to the spectator area.
What Happens: The Drop
We weren’t sure what to expect with the drop. We knew it was happening at 10pm, but we got corralled into the spectator area at 8:30pm and told we couldn’t go in and out after entering. Slowly, men started coming back into the pen in small groups. I noticed several guys had beefed up their skin protection since the original running around bit. Guys now had knee and elbow pads on, and tall legging-type socks. That’s when I realized they knew shit was gonna get crazy, and I started worrying for my friends.
More and more guys filtered into the pen and slowly the people started packing onto the platform.
The air buzzed with anticipation as the clock inched closer to 10pm. We saw men getting pushed off the platform, guys who had been crushed being taken out on stretchers, and one guy with a clearly broken ankle. We saw our friends come into the pen and we knew they were somewhere in the middle of it, and we grew more and more concerned about their safety. Honestly, it was pretty worrying to watch. It would be really easy for someone to get hurt.
One important piece of information we had somehow missed along the way is that they cut the lights out when the priest drops the shingi. We didn’t know this, so when the lights went out we were really confused and didn’t realize that IT HAD HAPPENED. We couldn’t see much anyway, though through the flares of thousands of camera flashes we saw a guy booking it for the exit and get absolutely shitkicked by another group of guys.
The lights went back on 10 seconds or so later, and it was complete and utter chaos in the pen. Men were screaming and running everywhere. We couldn’t see our friends, couldn’t see who had the shingi and couldn’t figure out if it was all over yet or not. After 10 minutes, the excitement died down and men started to give up and walk back to the tents to get undressed. After 25 minutes, an announcement was made that all the shingi had been claimed, and the event was over. We spilled out into the street and waited for our friends.
We weren’t able to connect with the boys since they had to go back to the AJET bus, so we made our way to the Saidaiji train station (the closest one to the temple where Hadaka Matsuri is held) to head back to the town center near our Air BnB. We took one of the first trains and it was a good thing, because the last train out of there is at 11:23pm and it was apparently PACKED. So if you go, get out early.
Once we found our friends again, the three of them were sore and banged up. One friend actually got one of the sticks from a smaller shingi, which he fought furiously for and he was covered in scrapes head to toe to prove it. He could barely walk for days afterward and had to go to the doctor several times to get his road rash treated and wrapped up. I hope his good luck from the stick was worth it!
Hadaka Matsuri is fucking crazy. I’d go again to watch, but it was stressful having friends in it because it’s legit dangerous for participants. That being said, how many people can say they ran around in a loincloth with 8,999 other men chasing a little bundle of sticks?
So, if you’re a brave dude maybe you might want to do it. If you are a girl or just want to watch, I highly recommend it!! It was a blast, and as a foreigner it was fun because all the TV stations want to interview you. I got interviewed 4 times. The atmosphere is fun, the food is good and it’s really exciting to see it. Also, I can’t complain about getting to see thousands of dudes in underwear!
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