This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.
Location: Kannon-in temple, Saidai-ji, Japan
Date: third Saturday in February
Level of participation: 5 – men are free to join in the violent battle
Naked Festivals are common (if a little overstated, since participants wear loincloths) throughout Japan in the early New Year but the most extraordinary is the one in the Kannon-in temple outside of Okayama. Taking place in the chilly depths of winter, Saidai-ji Eyō looks one part sumo, one part scrum and one part orgy, with thousands of near-naked men fighting for possession of two sacred shingi (wooden sticks), while freezing water is poured over them.
If it sounds like your sort of fun, there’s the injury toll to consider. Fuelled by alcohol, fights and skirmishes are common (with only two 20cm-long shingi and 10,000 or so desperate men, the meek are not going to win this contest) and if you don’t cop at least one smack in the mouth you’re probably not doing it right. An indicator of the intensity of the battle is the fact that the yakuza – Japan’s mafia – fields competitors in the event (look for the black loincloths and the blond hair). There’s also a decent chance of hypothermia – the average February minimum temperature in Okayama is around 1°C, which will seem rather chilly when you’re covered in icy water.
Saidai-ji Eyō’s origins date to the 16th century when, during Lunar New Year celebrations, priests were said to have thrown paper talismans into the crowds. As the years continued, and the paper talismans were being destroyed in the barney to claim them, they were replaced with the indestructible shingi.
Saidai-ji Eyō events begin at 6pm with a ‘naked man’ contest for primary school boys, scrambling and struggling in a prepubescent fight for such talismans as rice cakes and octagonal-shaped tubes. At 11pm the main combatants enter the temple where, at midnight, the lights are switched off and the shingi are thrown into the crowd – a bunch of sticks are thrown, but only two are authentic – which goes breast to breast, buttock to buttock in the frenzy to get hold of them. Many of the loincloth-laden do get a hand on the sticks, but that’s only an invitation to be savaged. To claim victory, and supposedly a year of good fortune and happiness (the prize money helps with the former), the sticks must be delivered back to the temple gates.
Essentials: have some warm clothes (and some insurance) ready for after the event. As a foreigner, be prepared for the fact that you’re likely to be a particular target for violence, so competing in a group is a good idea. You can always just watch – spectators can either be in blood-spitting range of the action or you can pay for a grandstand seat.
Local attractions: in Okayama, Kōraku-en has been called one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.
More info: Japan National Tourist Organization (www.jnto.go.jp)
See other festivals in February here.
This article was first published in December 2010 and was republished in January 2013.