Men fight for amulet, title of luckiest guy
BY TSUTOMU MIYATAKE STAFF WRITER
Swarms of men dressed in loincloths crowd the grounds of the Saidai-ji temple in Okayama on Saturday in an annual festival. (Masanori Takahashi)Women purify themselves in cold water to pray for the safety of participants in the Saidai-ji Eyo festival. (Masanori Takahashi)
OKAYAMA--Imagine trying to grab a stray banknote dropped in a jam-packed train before one of the other commuters snatches it and bolts from the car onto the platform.
Place that situation in a somber temple setting and have the contestants--all male--stripped down to loincloths. Now replace the banknote with a sacred wooden amulet that supposedly brings the bearer good fortune for the year.
The annual Saidai-ji Eyo hadaka matsuri (nudity festival), a ritual said to have originated in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), was held Saturday night at the Saidai-ji Kannon-in temple in Okayama's Higashi Ward.
Thousands of men dressed in skimpy traditional undergarments packed into the temple grounds and grappled for a pair of "shingi" (sacred pieces of wood), each measuring about 20 centimeters long, and tossed from the window of the temple's main altar.
According to local belief, those who manage to get their hands on the wooden amulet and race out of the temple's precincts will be blessed with good fortune for the rest of the year.
In the evening, men began to throng the temple, and by the time the treasured pieces of wood were tossed out of the window, the men were packed like sardines in the 15-meter by nine-meter plaza in front of the main altar.
Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri
(Naked Festival at Saidai-ji Temple)
A mysterious and exciting night festival.
Almost fully-naked men compete for good luck charms.
City:Saidaiji-naka, Okayama Prefecture
One of the three most eccentric festivals of Japan. Nine thousand men wearing only loincloths struggle fiercely with one another over a pair of lucky sacred sticks measuring 4 cm in diameter and 20 cm in length, thrown into the crowd by the priest from a window 4 m up. Anyone who luckily gets hold of the shingi and thrusts them upright in a wooden measuring box known as a masu which is heaped with rice is called the lucky man, and is blessed with a year of happiness. The other lucky items are bundles of willow strips, and although 100 of these are thrown into the crowd, it is not an easy task to catch them.
The origins of this festival date back 500 years when worshippers competed to receive paper talismans called Go-o thrown by the priest. These paper talismans were tokens of the completion of New Year ascetic training by the priests. As those people receiving these paper talismans had good things happen to them, the number of people requesting them increased year by year. However, as paper was easily torn, the talismans were changed to the wooden ofuda that we know today.
Shouting out 'Wasshoi! Wasshoi!' the almost fully naked men approach the precincts. Although this festival takes place in the cold season, the fervor of the men waiting impatiently is so strong that they seem to have difficulty breathing, which is why water is splashed over them. Precisely at midnight, the lights are turned off all at once, the sacred sticks are thrown into the crowd, and the vehement rush to grab the sticks starts. Even if someone is lucky enough to get hold of the sacred sticks, they are quickly snatched away by others, almost like a rugby game. Spectators usually crowd around the participants within the precincts of the shrine to experience all the thrills and excitement of the action. But if you wish to look on safely, there are seats available, though you have topay for them.
On the day of the festival, prior to the main event, there is a Hadaka Matsuri from 18:00 when primary school boys compete for rice cakes and cylindrical treasures.