Yesterday morning as the sun rose over Inazawa (the town neighbouring ours) in central Japan it was a crisp minus 3 degrees and there was unmelted snow lying in shady areas. Thousands of local men clearly thought, “What a beautiful day to dress in nothing but a loincloth and walk around for hours exposed to the elements as a participant in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri (Inazawa Naked Festival)”. I make this ridiculous claim only because yesterday I saw with my own eyes thousands of men dressed in nothing but loincloths walk around for hours in the chilly north wind, as willing participants in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri.
This is just one of a number of “naked ” festivals across Japan, which are said to have originated in the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD).
Early in the afternoon, groups of local men in loincloths started to appear outside houses and community centres, drinking saké, chanting together, jogging on the spot, and generally looking cold and embarrassed. After spending some time cutting circuitous routes through the backstreets they then slowly converged at the entrance to Konomiya Shrine. By this time their bodies had warmed up due to an unusual combination of alcohol and exercise, and cold water was sprayed on them in order to prevent skin rash as the crowd of semi-naked men became increasingly thick and uncomfortably close.
This festival centres around one man – the Shin-okoto (literally “god man”), who is incidentally the only participant who is actually naked (apart from those unfortunate middle-aged men who could occasionally be seen having “wardrobe malfunctions” midway through the festivities). Shinto traditionalists believe that touching the Shin-okoko cleanses one of sin, evil and other general misfortune. I don’t know how much traction this gains amongst the majority of younger Japanese – who are basically superstitious secularists – but in Japan once something becomes a tradition the fact that it has become so is reason enough to continue to do it. Towards the end of the festival the Shin-otoko basically crowd-surfs his way up to a small door in the shrine building, in which, with the loss of any small amount of remaining dignity, he is involuntarily inserted.
This isn’t moderately absurd. This is completely nuts.