“There he is, I see him!” a nameless voice rings out through the frigid air. “He’s coming this way” shouts another. Something is making its way through the crowd, as flailing arms rise out of the indistinguishable mass of human flesh, turned pink by the winter cold. Although it is impossible to see exactly what is coming, you can hear the slaps and dull packing sounds of fists above the roar of several hundred naked men. Then you catch a fleeting glimpse as the “sacred man,” shaved from head to toe steals across your field of vision for a split second. He is surrounded by a cadre of close friends who have vowed to keep him safe as he bolts toward the temple and out of the clutches of the thonged throng (pun most definitely intended). You have finally arrived at the fabled “Naked Man Festival,” and it does not disappoint.
Naked festivals exist throughout the country, but the tradition is rumored to have begun at Saidai temple (西大寺) in Okayama City sometime during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573). Japanese New Year’s traditions at that time were not much different than now, including the custom of purchasing protective amulets and placards from the shrine or temple. According to city archives, around the year 1510 CE, these placards, called “sugo-fuda” in Japanese were in such high demand that the temple was overwhelmed by patrons. To appease the crowds, the priests took to throwing the placards over the parishioners heads. Legend has it that the men would disrobe to make it easier to move about. Other accounts claim that the men naturally became disrobed in the ensuing scramble. Either way, men these days show-up from the beginning wearing only a loincloth.
As with many traditions, the nudity has taken on additional meaning over the years, where it has come to symbolize the purity of a newborn baby, or in some cases rebirth. The festival is especially popular among men of the “unlucky” ages of 25, 42 and 61 years old (called “yakudoshi” in Japanese), as a way to expel the bad luck and evil spirits plaguing them. This is especially the case at Okuni-tama shrine in Inazawa City, in Aichi prefecture, a shrine highly regarded for its Shinto purification rites.
Although the official name is Okuni-tama Shrine 大国霊神社, it is known by locals as Konomiya Shrine 国府宮神社 due to its proximity to the former provincial capitol of Owari province, the former name for western Aichi prefecture. Every year, a person is selected by lottery to become the “shin-otoko” or sacred man. It is believed that touching the sacred man will transfer one’s bad luck and evil spirits onto him. He then acts as a proxy, or sacrificial lamb, and ferries the bad luck up to the temple where he is purified. To ensure that all of one’s bad luck makes the jump, many men resort to slapping and hitting the sacred man, often quite vigorously. The “shin-otoko’s” perilous run to the temple is not something to be envied, as few men finish without welts and bruises.
Similar traditions can be found around Japan, as far north as Kuroseki Temple in Iwate prefecture, and as far south as Hakozaki Shrine in Fukuoka. Some naked festivals in Tokyo and Kyoto are held in the summer, but if you ask me that takes away half of the fun. Battling the elements with nothing but a loincloth is what the naked man festival is all about.
This year’s festival at Okuni-tama Shrine will be held on February 20th. The nearest station is Konomiya station on the Meitetsu Nagoya Mainline, about 25 minutes from Nagoya Station.