This time last year, the Saidaiji Kannon-in temple in Japan’s Okayama prefecture was a writhing ball of flesh.
The Hadaka Matsuri or “Naked Festival” is a hugely popular attraction that sees thousands of men gathering from across the southern part of Honshu Island.
On the third Saturday of February they are invited to strip down to a simple loincloth and join the fray to battle for “holy sticks”. The fertility festival has roots going back almost 1000 years.
In temples across the prefecture there are normally hundreds of such melees at regional temples, drawing up to 10,000 men at a time.
Men in loincloths participate in the Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Festival, at the Saidaiji Temple in Okayama in 2014. Picture: Trevor Williams/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images
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However, in the midst of a global pandemic organisers have been forced to plan celebrations that are a bit more “modest”.
The Hadaka Matsuri has been continually observed for 500 years, uninterrupted by wars or previous public health scares.
Priests at this specific temple in Okayama were reluctant to call the whole thing off. Instead they reached a compromise which saw a modest gathering of around 100 youths turning up in their “fundoshi” loincloths for a severely downsized and somewhat distanced festival.
Normally a spectacle that draws participants and spectators, this year’s Eyo took place behind closed doors.
The tradition goes back centuries and has been held each year despite war or public health crises. Picture: Trevor Williams/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images
In a statement from the Temple’s chairman Minoru Omori, the temple said they had sought a way not to lose the “essence” of Eyo.
“In discussion with the chief priest and committee members, we have reached the conclusion that we need to pray [for] Eyo now,” he said.
“Eyo relates to a term called “ichiyo-raifuku”, which means “to withstand the harsh, cold winter and reach the warmth of spring”.
“In other words, we pray for good luck after continuous bad things.”
The Eyo normally sees thousands of young men in nothing by “fundoshi” loincloths and white “tabi” socks, gather in the freezing waters of the temple pool. At 10pm the priest turns the lights out and hurls the “lucky sticks” into the writhing mass of participants.
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It is considered one of Japan’s most unique festivals. Picture: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty ImagesSource:Supplied
Despite the confusion, the contest element rarely lasts longer the half an hour. Injuries are not uncommon, but rarely severe.
In 2016 the festival was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset by UNESCO. During almost 1000 years of observation it is thought that the lucky sticks replaced paper talismans, which were too fragile to survive the competition. It is thought that clothes were originally part of the ritual competition, but participants quickly realised they were prone to tear and “slow them down”.
This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald and was reproduced with permission
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