Japanese men in loincloths are, amazingly, not all that much of a curiosity; after all, sumo wrestlers have been around for centuries. But those who take part in the Hadaka Matsuri take this practice to another level, as seen above.
Each February, in Saidaiji-naka, Okayama Prefecture, roughly 9,000 men gather to partake in Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri — literally, “the naked festival at Saidai-ji Temple.” While not the only Hadaka Matsuri, it is the most notable and the best attended. The thousands of men, each wearing nothing more than a diaper-like loincloth despite the winter temperatures, take to the street at midnight to collect one of a few hundred sticks thrown out of a window about two or three stories up. Collecting a stick and putting them into a rice-filled box called a masu is supposed to bring the blessing of a year of happiness, explaining the often manic crowds. According to Japan’s National Tourism Organization, the festival dates back half a millenium, when priests would throw paper talismans called Go-o to worshippers down below; the sticks are a more durable solution to a marginally more modern affair.
While you would guess that the cold would turn people away, the modern “worshippers” seem not to notice the winter’s chill. The excitement of the evening, per the tourism organization, is enough to keep the participants warm and even affect their breathing. Organizers spray the crowd with water to keep everyone healthy, although why or how this works is left unexplained. Perhaps it is to make people slip when the inevitable melee breaks out as the thousands of now-wet men scramble and wrestle to grab the magical pieces of wood. Or, perhaps it is another cultural detail lost to antiquity or in translation.
Bonus fact: From the 1940s to the 1970s, a group of elite New England universities (including both Harvard and Yale) took naked photos of their students, ostensibly as a way to measure the prevalence of rickets and scoliosis in the population. Many famous people were included in these photo sets, but do not expect to find these pictures online: they were destroyed in the 1990s.
From the Archives: Eggplant, Rice, Bananas, and Dog Food: Naked and Japanese, again.
Related: “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture” by Roger J. Davies. 17 reviews, 3.5 stars.