Hadaka Matsuri participants are strictly men. In Saidai-ji, the elementary school boys have a separate competition during the day, while the men compete at the stroke of midnight. Other places, like Konomiya, don’t have any age restriction and even very small infants can take part.
The festivities don’t start and stop with the main event. At Saidai-ji, the young men’s Hadaka Matsuri ritual begins at 4 PM. There’s also musical performances, snack vendors, and knickknacks for sale. Throughout the afternoon, groups of brave, loincloth-clad men race through the icy cold pool. This is the pre-game purification in order to prepare them for the competition ahead.
The ‘Naked Festival’ is a bit of a misnomer, since the competitors are neither naked nor celebrating fertility or other concepts the theme of ‘naked’ brings to mind. The traditional garb for the Hadaka Matsuri is the white loincloth. It adds to the challenge, since the festival is held at the end of the year when the weather is getting colder.
Other Hadaka Matsuri are celebrated around Japan with slight variations on the activities. The small town of Shimadachi, for example, sees their elementary school boys march around the town in the loin cloth for several hours. They close out with a prayer at the local shrine before jumping into the nearby muddy pond for a final celebration.
Saidai-ji’s Hadaka Matsuri is the largest and most famous in all of Japan. Around 9,000 men participate in this festival, waiting for their chance to seize the lucky charms thrown into the crowd by the Shinto priest.
At Saidai-ji, onlookers crowd around the competitors for a better look. The darkness adds another level to the challenge, but it’s still a fun event to watch. A little way away are the spectator’s seats, which can be prebooked before the festival — it’s the only way to ensure a good spot, but it isn’t necessary.
At exactly midnight, all the lights are shut off and the sacred sticks are thrown into the crowd of partially-clad men. No sooner has someone grabbed them that they are quickly snatched away. But eventually, one lucky man will stand the sticks into the box filled with rice known as the masu. He’s the lucky one, who will be blessed with good fortune for the following year.
For some, Saidai-ji is believed to be the birthplace of the festival. Around 500 years ago, worshipers of the shrine received paper charms from the priest at year’s end. It was believed good things happened to anyone who managed to get one, and the priests started getting more and more requests. These paper charms were eventually changed to something more substantial, and today, these are the pair of sacred wooden sticks and bundles of willow that are tossed into the crowd.
Since Hadaka Matsuri aren’t exclusive to Saidai-ji, there are other origin stories. One states that over 1000 years ago, people believed nakedness could ward off misfortune. Villages would select one ‘lucky’ man to collect all their troubles, which he did by walking through the crowd naked. He was then banished, hopefully along with the villager’s bad luck, illness, and calamity.