Japan prosperity rite draws thousands in loincloths despite winter cold

Akira Tomoshige, Reuters

Posted at Feb 17 2020 01:33 PM

Men dressed in loincloths prepare to snatch a wooden stick called "shingi" tossed by the priest during a naked festival at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, Feb. 15, 2020. The person who grabs the wooden stick is considered the "luckiest man of the year." Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

OKAYAMA - About 10,000 Japanese men clad only in loincloths braved freezing temperatures at the weekend to pack into a temple and scramble in the dark for lucky wooden talismans tossed into the crowd, in a ritual that dates back 5 centuries.

The highlight of the raucous daylong "Hadaka Matsuri" festival came at 10 p.m. on Saturday, when the lights went out and a priest threw bundles of twigs and 2 lucky sticks, each about 20-cm (8-inch) -long, among the participants.

That set off a 30-minute tussle for the sticks, coveted as symbols of good fortune and prosperity, although most men escaped with just a few cuts and bruises, in contrast to past occasions, when some have been crushed to death.

"Once a year, at the coldest time in February, we wrap ourselves in just a loincloth to be a man," said 55-year-old Yasuhiko Tokuyama, the president of a regional electronics firm.

"That's the significance of this event and why I continue to participate."

Plenty of sake and beer is sold outside the temple to warm the revelers, but a purifying plunge into pools of cold water before the start of the festival was a shock to the system for most.

The annual celebration at the Saidaiji Kannonin Temple in the southern city of Okayama has its roots in a competition to grab paper talismans that dates back more than 500 years.

But as its popularity grew, the paper talismans began to rip, as did the clothes of the rising number of participants, so that eventually wooden sticks were adopted and garments discarded.