For the First Time in 1,250 Years, Women Will Join Japan's Oldest Naked Man Festival
This year, iconic new year’s bash Konomiyo is opening its hectic doors to participants of all genders.
Skin thwaps skin as a mass of 10,000 loincloth-clad men undulates with rumbling kinetic energy. It may be freezing in February, but here at the temple it’s all sweat and ricocheting grunts. They lunge, twist, climb, yell, slip, tangle limbs, and trip each other in a grand mosh pit of masculine bravado. Their goal is to best each other and eventually grasp one of two little sticks—coveted symbols of good luck—and all’s fair in getting to their prize. Even if there’s a priest watching.
This is the Saidaiji Eyo Festival, a sacred, massive, bare-skinned tableau held every third Saturday in February in Okayama’s Saidaiji Kannon-in Temple in Western Japan. It’s the most famous of the Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Man Festivals, which occur all year but are traditionally held around the Lunar New Year—which this year falls on February 10—to attract good luck.
Saidaiji Eyo dates back to 1510, when the temple would hold its annual Buddhist New Year service to appeal for peace and a bountiful harvest. However, only the elders would receive good-luck talismans, leaving the rest of the good fortune-seeking worshippers to rumble for the fragile pieces of paper. Eventually, the talismans were wrapped around wood to prevent tearing, and dropped down to the masses to compete for the “treasured tree,” a tradition that’s still going strong. And in 2016, the Japanese government designated the event an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset.
But while the Saidaiji Eyo may be the most prominent, the oldest Hadaka Matsuri is the Konomiyo Festival, where thousands of participants gather at the Owari Okunitama-jinja Shrine at the usually sleepy Aichi city of Inazawa. And when this year’s fest kicks off on February 22, it’ll introduce a major change that might have even greater implications for all the Hadaka Matsuri moving forward. Because for the first time since it began 1,250 years ago, there will be women participating in the Naked Man Festival.
Why? Call it a side-effect of the pandemic—that, plus rural depopulation. According to the South China Morning Post, years of Covid-related restrictions forced the festival to initially stray from its traditional form by going digital. As such, there was a significant uptick in women inquiring about participating. Then in January 2024, women were allowed to participate in the religious Katsube Fire Festival for the first time since it began 800 years ago. Taking note of this shift, the Naked Man Festivals reckoned with the fact that certain traditions—especially those that hinge on gender divides—will inevitably have to adjust for the modern era.
The Konomiyo Festival was born when priests were ordered by the governor to cleanse Aichi Prefecture of plagues and pestilence. It begins with participants parading through town to the shrine clutching bamboo poles decorated with ribbons, drinking sake, then splashing each other with cold water (again, it’s February).
Here, participants get rid of bad luck by transferring it to the chosen Shin-Otoko (translation: man of God, or chosen one), who has been isolated for days in prayer then shaved head to toe. He is unclothed, shuttled around, making as much contact and absorbing as much misfortune as possible, before being whisked away to the shrine and, in the practice’s earliest days, sacrificed (never fear, that particular element remains in the past). To close things out, water-throwers called Tewo Ketai splash the crowds with ceremonial water.
While they’ve alway been allowed in as spectators, this year’s festival will include 40 women as official participants, though (thankfully?) they’ll be skipping the minimally clad finish. Instead they will don traditional happi coats and make ritual offerings of bamboo grass to the shrine. At a recent press conference, one of the women who lobbied for the privilege, 36-year-old Ayaka Suzuki, explained that she’s wanted to get in on the festival action since she was a child, saying, “I could have participated had I been a boy!”
Aside from the lucky Shin-Otoko, the rest of the participants aren't totally naked. But their tabi socks and fundoshi—traditional Japanese underwear—don’t cover that much, something that becomes especially apparent during the chaotic jostling. The fundoshi are worn because they’re easier to move in, but in reality, they do the heavy lifting in making sure this must-see attraction lives up to its cheeky name.
Sharing the spotlight is the four-ton Okagami Mochi, a.k.a. a gigantic rice cake. Rice cakes have long been fixtures in Japanese households around the new year, believed to protect the home for the year to come. Here, the gigantic jiggly specimen sits in the shrine all day like a lucky Jabba the Hutt, waiting to be cut up and distributed at the end of the festivities. Consume it, and it’s believed you will be protected from sickness—and given all that cold water splashing around, it’s no wonder the semi-nude faithful are always quick to line up for their share.