What are you doing on the third Saturday in February? If your answer doesn’t involve 9,000 Japanese men in loincloths battling over a pair of lucky sticks, then you might want to make a change of plans. Let us explain.
Saidaiji Eyō, or Saidaiji Hadaka Matsuri [Saidaiji Naked Festival] takes place in Okayama, Japan, every third Saturday in February. A 500-year-old tradition, this incredible event pits 9,000 men against one another in the Saidaiji Temple for the chance to capture one pair of sacred sticks that are said to bring the winner good luck for an entire year. The plot twist? Held on one of the coldest days of the year in Okayama, the competing men are nearly naked all day, wearing only a traditional fundoshi [loincloth] as they march through the city, purify themselves in cold water, and enter Saidaiji Temple to compete with the crowd for the pair of lucky sticks.
Hadaka Matsuri [Naked Festivals] are actually fairly common, traditional Japanese festivals that take place around the country all year long. There is the Tamaseseri Festival in January, for example, during which loincloth-clad participants vie for a treasure ball, that grants good luck for the year to the person who lifts it over his head. The above image was taken at the annual Tamaseseri Festival in front of the Hakuzaki Palace. For Western thinkers, this concept might raise some eyebrows, but in Japanese culture, wearing a fundoshi [loincloth] is viewed as a pure, simple form of dress for special events and competitions like Saidaiji Eyō.
Of all the Hadaka Matsuri events in Japan, Saidaiji Eyō is one of the most popular, drawing at least 15,000 spectators along with the 9,000 competitors. In fact, the entire day is a citywide celebration. Earlier in the day, before the late-night competition, women perform taiko drumming and dance for the crowds. Schoolboys participate in their own version of the competition, dressing in fundoshi and competing for rice cakes and small treasures. And everywhere you turn, the sake and beer is flowing like mud.
Competitors partake in the revelry too, which means that many of the men in the main event are drunk or tipsy, upping the ante even more. Worried about safety? While there’s a certain amount of risk involved in the competition no matter what, the men fill out a safety card with their name, an emergency contact, and their blood type and store it in their fundoshi (where else?!) in case of an accident.
Finally, it’s time for the competition. At midnight, after the men have marched the streets and perhaps indulged in various spirits, they purify themselves with a quick dip in cold water and enter Saidaiji Temple. Crammed shoulder to shoulder in the narrow grounds of the temple, the men begin chanting, “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!” as they wait for the sacred sticks to be tossed. Literally, the chant translates to “heave ho!,” but the crowd views it as a chant of unity and togetherness moments before the fighting begins.
What's the goal?
When the temple lights are turned off and on again, a priest appears in a window just above the crowd. He throws the sacred sticks — two sticks about the size of sticks of bamboo — into the throng of competitors, along with about 100 bundles of willow strips that will bring their finders good luck, cash, or other prizes. The men fight and wrestle their way to the sacred sticks, until one lucky winner captures them and safely delivers both upright into a masu [a traditional wooden box] filled with rice. The grand prize? Good luck for an entire year. What could be better than that?
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What do you think of this unique festival? Would you participate? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you're feeling brave enough, give us a shout out on social media!