The Saidaiji Naked Men Festival is widely considered to be one of Japan’s strangest matsuri. Each year in February, roughly 10,000 men sign up to wrestle and run around the Saidaiji Temple area to get hold of a sacred stick called the Shingi. These men form teams of up to 20 members in order to obtain said Shingi, allegedly bringing good fortune to those who claim it.
The army of naked men start running laps around Saidaiji Temple around 8pm, bathing themselves in the purifying waters of a nearby fountain. They must do three laps around the temple, which takes about an hour to complete. By 9:30pm crowds of naked men start gathering at the podium of Saidaiji Temple and fight for a good position. Many men start gripping the wooden beams of the structure in an attempt to stay within reaching distance of the shingi. However, as every minute passes, dozens more enter the sacred arena, creating a wall of bodies that push aside even the strongest amongst them. As this moshpit of naked men grows, steam can be seen rising from the podium. The collective body heat of the crowd is so hot that participants are said to get severe burns if they are not covered with enough water. Priests on the second floor balcony of the temple try to bathe the mob of men below in sacred water, but as soon as it makes contact with their flesh, the cool liquid evaporates.
Whirlpools of bodies begin forming inside the temple and people start pushing and shoving (like catching the last train on the Yamanote-sen) so hard that dozens go tumbling down the temple steps. The police have to enter the mob now and then to separate fights that can easily break out.
A few men had to be rushed to medical tents due to heat exhaustion. With just seconds before the main event, all the lights go out throughout the entire temple. Camera flashes go off like strobe lights and confusion spreads throughout the crowd. During this hysteria, the shingi are dropped into the darkness below. Hundreds of hands desperately grab for the Shingi and the lucky few quickly hide the sacred sticks and rely on their team members to help them run outside the temple. No one can tell who holds the prized sticks, but hordes of men start running and pushing into crowds. Within a matter of minutes, however, the event is over.
The winners already exited the temple grounds, but do not stand on a podium to raise their trophies like many televised events have sensitized us to expect. The festival ends in a somewhat anticlimactic way: There’s no winner’s ceremony, no acknowledgement of getting a prized possession, no true winners or losers to speak of – just a bunch of exhausted, naked men in the coldness of the Japanese winter.
Overall the Saidaiji Naked Men Festival is full of fun and excitement that helps lift your spirits during the cold, dark winter. What may sound like a gimmick is actually one of the three most eccentric festivals of Japan, and a cultural tradition that has continued for over 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. As those people receiving these paper talismans had good things happen to them, the number of people requesting them increased year by year. However, as paper was easily torn, the talismans were changed to the wooden ofuda that we know and use today.
If you’re in Japan in February, you may want to try out a refreshing splash of eccentricity in Saidaiji city – if you’re brave enough to get naked with thousands of other men in the cold Japanese Winter.
For those bold souls considering to participate next year at the 509th festival, please follow the link below. The rules state that you have to be male, cannot drink alcohol during the event, fight during the event, or have any visible tattoos.
Saidaiji Sign-up: https://goo.gl/JeH5dk
Thanks all for reading, and hope to see you at next year’s festival!