By Trevor Price
On February 10th, a series of happy accidents that stemmed from a trip to Nagahama for an Ume plum bonsai exhibition of all things left me in Nagoya wondering what to do the next day.
We were on a castle tour, as we sometimes are, and Nagoya had to get crossed off the list, but castles don’t usually take all day, and I was exploring the internet for some of the other things Nagoya had to offer. It turns out Nagoya was offering something truly special.
As Japan ramps up its tourism efforts before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the quality of information you can get about different Japanese cities has increased dramatically, and Nagoya is no exception. As is the case with almost everywhere in this country, each city seems to have a reputation as being all business and no play, but if you do some searching, there is almost always something amazing to see or do no matter where you go.
It just so happened that our timing was, as usual, uncanny. On February 11th, Konomiya, near Nagoya, would be holding the Hadaka Matsuri, sometimes known as the Naked Man Festival, one of the strangest festivals in the entire country.
I’ll give a quick rundown on the basics as I’m sure there is more accurate information out there on the internet.
The short story begins a few months before. Men volunteer to be “chosen” as the scapegoat for the festival, and one man is selected to bear the bad luck of all the attendees. He is called the Shin-otoko. He is sequestered before the festival for three days, and his body hair is completely shaved.
On the day of the festival, thousands of men dressed in nothing but a simple loincloth (called a fundoshi) arrive at the shrine. They make their way down the streets surrounding the shrine from all directions, and the entire neighborhood is flooded with men in loincloths, street food vendors, and interested gawkers.
The men are in groups representing different areas from around the Nagoya area, but sometimes there are some people that have come from much farther away. They come bearing bundled bamboo as offerings for blessings from the priests. This takes several hours to complete as each group enters the shrine, receives the blessings, and then runs out.
Then comes the wait. For the next couple of hours, the groups will await the arrival of the shin-otoko. The chosen man spends his day trying to make his way toward the shrine from outside in the neighborhood surrounding. The belief is if you are able to touch the chosen man as he makes his way to the shrine, you will transfer your bad luck to him for the next year. That’s what everyone is doing here!
It’s a bit of an inside joke that the harder you touch him, the better chance your luck is to be transferred properly. People don’t hold back much when they get a chance to smack him with all their might.
It’s not all bad for our hero though. He has a group of men equipped with buckets that spend the entire time defending our naked running man. They toss ice cold water attempting to ward off would-be slappers. Remember, it’s February! It’s cold enough already without freezing water being dumped on you.
When everyone finally makes it to the shrine, that’s when things get really crazy. The shrine itself is equipped with water hoses and spray nozzles that soak the waiting crowd of 10,000 or so fundoshi-clad men waiting for their chance to slap their bad luck away.
The shin-otoko enters and fights his way through the crowd while the shrine workers tie themselves to the inside of the shrine and climb over the crowd to get the black-and-blue chosen one and drag him into the shrine. As soon as he’s inside, that’s it. It’s all over and everyone goes home, frozen and laughing.
My experience was amazing! I came early enough that I was close to all the action as people brought in the offerings for the temple, and when the chosen man arrived, I was actually allowed into the ring where the action takes place. I was not close enough to get soaked with water though (thank goodness).
The atmosphere was pure madness, and yet I still had a local gentleman take the time to explain everything that was going on. He said he had never participated himself, but next year he was planning to participate since he turns 42, which is considered an especially unlucky year. Hopefully he gets a good smack in so he can avoid the bad luck!