Want a chance to participate in Japan’s third oldest festival? Being a part of a Japanese festival is a sure way to get in touch with the culture, even in the middle of winter!
Now, if I were to invite you to one called “The Naked Man Festival” many readers would probably run away. That’s fine, since running is a big part of the festivities. The great thing about this one is that it’s cheap. You don’t need to buy any elaborate costumes. All you need is your birthday suit, a Japanese fundoshi which resembles a sumo thong and a pair of tabi socks / white tape.
More about prices later. First, let me give you some of the bare details about the experience on which you brave souls are about to embark — with this video.
Okay, you may have chosen to watch the video later. That’s fine. I won’t spoil the ending for you! Instead, let’s go right to the details.
Note to ladies:
There haven’t been any female participants in recent times, but I was told by the head priest at Saidaiji Temple that women have historically participated. The real Japanese name is hadaka matsuri which does not refer to gender. Simply translated, it’s the “naked festival” but since the fundoshi thong is for men and only men have participated in recent times – recent being the last 400 years – women are not part of the event anymore.
The event takes place on the third Saturday in February annually (see our event page). There are several parts to the festival. >> http://www.saidaiji.jp/website/eyou-activity
Children’s Naked Man Festival
Yes, adorable kids in thongs fight to the end for magical sticks. The winner is hoisted on the shoulder’s of an adult and paraded around like a hero. It’s sometimes more violent than the adult event!
18:30 and 20:00
Taiko drums are played during the event. There are usually more performances throughout the day but these are the officially listed times.
18:00 to 20:00
The Group Event
Many local companies and groups march in for blessings. The circuit starts by entering the temple ground, running through the fountain to cleanse and purify the soul. After that, the group enters the temple for a blessing and then leaves through the side to go around and back through the fountain again! Most groups do it 3 times before returning to their office or tent.
The Main Event
This is where 9,000 naked men cram into the temple to catch the lucky shingi sticks. You can start to enter the temple for this 90-120 minutes before. If you want to be inside to catch a shingi, definitely get there as early as possible or fight your way in. A shingi is a holy stick that will bring luck to its bearer for an entire year. It is pleasantly scented and when they drop it onto the group, the smell fills the air!
About 10% of the participants are foreigners. That number is increasing annually so you’re sure to meet up with people from the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe and South America as I did. Japanese people are usually quite shy, but during the festival, it’s a great time to get to know the locals and make friends. It’s easy when you’re all dressed the same way. There’s an expression called “hadaka no tsukiai” which is loosely translated as “we’re all equal when naked”. Leave your rank and file with your clothes. This may be one of the best times to make Japanese friends.
Oh, and by the way — many Japanese TV networks also like to interview foreign participants. They want to know why you’re here and what you think about the event. This festival gets national news every year. If you feel it’s your moment to shine, run towards them!
After the group event, almost everyone gets some hot udon noodles and soup made nearby. Try a bowl! It might even be free. Locals try their best to take care of the participants. Make sure you eat something before you go to the main event to grab the holy shingi sticks. You’ll need a lot of energy!
This usually pays for access to the tents. There are tents set up all around the temple opening around 16:00 for unassociated participants to enjoy the event. Many independent tents run by locals can sell you a whole package with all the goods included — fundoshi, head band, tabi socks, and tape.
You don’t need to reserve in advance. It’s possible to just go to Saidaiji Temple and pop into a tent to change. Everything you’ll need is available there, but you may want to bring some things.
Things to bring:
- Tape (white) to keep your tabi socks on (no shoes allowed)
- A few towels and/or a blanket
- Food and a bottle of sake or beer to share with people in your tent after the event
Many of the Japanese people at the tent can speak a little English, but if you speak some Japanese it’ll go a long way – especially when things get crazy. When the event starts, the tent will let you know. In fact, you will know by just following the crowd and huddle up with the other guys in your tent to stay warm. It’s normal for bystanders to throw ice water on you — this gets you moving! No standing around.
You are not supposed to take photos while participating in the event. It helps to have a friend with you who is not participating so they can take photos and offer assistance should you need it. If you do bring a camera, tuck it deep in the wrapping of your loin cloth and make sure it is water proof! A dip in the pool is required for cleansing. Be aware that police may take your camera from you should they see it. They line the entrance to keep out trouble makers.
Learning it before you go helps you rationale the reason why you’re naked outdoors at night in sub-zero weather. The reason for this event dates back at least 500 years ago. That fundoshi you’re wearing is special. After participating, keep it. It’s a prized possession. Japanese give the thong to their wives when they become pregnant. It offers support and strength. There’s magical powers in that fundoshi. Just wash it first before you hand it over.
Participants shout out ‘Wasshoi! Wasshoi!’
No one knows what it means except that it’s said over and over at festivals.
Be very respectful.
Sure — you’ll get your feet stomped on and get pushed at the main event — and possibly get hit in the head. It’s all accidental and part of the dangers. This is not an invitation to throw a punch although you may get an elbow to the face. Know this before entering. Again, there are no shoes allowed so your feet will be smashed constantly.
Being inside the temple between 21:00 and 22:00 is dangerous. If you are a hulk, you’ll do just fine. If you’re like me, perhaps it’s better to hang out on the sides hoping that someone kicks a shingi out. An old guy told me every year, locals find one or two in the sand in the morning! After the event, you can check the floor between the cracks. The ultimate goal is to get a shingi at 22:00.
What happens at 22:00:
The temple hall is crowded with sweaty men in thongs. The air is so warm and moist inside that many say it’s hard to breath. At exactly 22:00, the lights go out and the priest drops the nicely scented shindig sticks into the middle of the hall from the window above. You can smell the shingi when they drop. The scent is that strong. This is perhaps the most dangerous time. If you’re lucky enough to grab a shingi, put it in your fundoshi and run out of the temple. Don’t let anyone see you do it or they’ll man handle you, reaching for any stick they can find in your loin cloth. It’s best to walk out as though you don’t have anything then when you’re in the clear, dash! These sticks are highly prized by locals, so much that brawls have occurred to get one. It’s usually all over by 22:05.
Go to the toilet BEFORE you put on your fundoshi loin cloth! There should be a few near the tent, but it’s best to go at the station and not drink too much. Once the fundoshi goes on, going to the toilet is almost impossible! And anyway, when you see in the video how they put it on, you’d don’t want it to come off.
You’re not allowed to drink alcohol. People do, however. DO NOT CARRY ALCOHOL during the event. If you do, it’s an instant way to end your participation because the event is lined with police officers. Whatever you do, don’t get drunk! This is dangerous, not only because of the cold, but because you need to be sharp mentally and physically for this event — in mind, body and soul. There is also a deep religious significance to the event so purity is important. A little goes a long way. Save the big drinking for after the event.
Trains from Okayama:
Take the JR Ako Line for 5 stops, 17 minutes. The trains run only twice an hour so plan ahead.
It’s good to get there early. There are also events for the kids in the early afternoon and many people start arriving around 15:00~17:00. I was getting set at around 17:30. Also, make sure you check the time of your last train! Saidaiji Station is small and trains are few, especially at night. A taxi ride back to Okayama Station is a little pricy.
“I just want to watch the madness not get naked!”
That’s okay, too. It’s free.
You can watch along the route around the temple or if you get there early, you can grab a seat in the stands in front of the temple. Bring warm clothes, camera and some booze and food. There are few restaurants in the area.
Make sure you have a hotel in advance. There’s a capsule hotel next to Okayama Station. Also note that the last train back to Okayama is early! If you want to hang out in Saidaiji after, there are taxis to take you back. Those cost about 7,000-8,000 yen so ride share if you can.
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