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Japan's bizarre festivals: From crying babies to men in loincloth, cursing to silent dancing

Japanese women perform a traditional dance during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.
Japanese women perform a traditional dance during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.PHOTO: AFP
Japanese women step in a fountain to be purified during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.
Japanese women step in a fountain to be purified during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.PHOTO: AFP
Japanese men step in a fountain to be purified during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.
Japanese men step in a fountain to be purified during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.PHOTO: AFP
Worshippers wait for the priest to throw sacred batons during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.
Worshippers wait for the priest to throw sacred batons during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - From men jostling to catch lucky charms while clad only in a tiny loincloth protecting their modesty, to sumo wrestlers competing to make a baby cry, Japan has numerous festivals that are quite out of this world.

The Straits Times looks at some of the country's more bizarre traditions.

NUDITY

Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Man Festival


Worshippers fall down the stairs while waiting for the priest to throw the sacred batons during the annual Naked Man Festival or "Hadaka Matsuri" at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan. PHOTO: AFP

When: Third Saturday in February

Where: Saidaiji Kannon-in Temple, Okayama City in west Japan

What: In an annual tradition that has been ongoing for over 500 years, thousands of sweaty men clad only in loincloth huddle in a temple to catch sacred wooden sticks tossed into the crowd by a priest.

Those who manage to get their hands on the coveted batons, known as shingi, and succeed in putting them into a wooden box, are said to be blessed with good fortune and happiness for the rest of the year.

The lights are switched off at the auspicious hour as priests begin chanting mystical spells, before the sticks are tossed from a window four metres above ground.

The festival has caused injuries, and even deaths, in the past.

This year's festival on Feb 19 saw about 10,000 men taking part. They first cleansed their bodies in a fountain before entering the temple.

Paper talismans were previously used, but were replaced with more resilient wooden sticks as the event grew in popularity.

Kokusekiji Sominsai, or Naked Festival


Men wearing loincloths during the Kokusekiji Sominsai, or Naked Festival, at the Kokusekiji Temple in Oshu. PHOTO: WWW.JAPAN-IWATE.INFO

When: February

Where: Kokusekiji Temple in Oshu, Iwate prefecture

What: The festival in the cold of winter has a history of more than 1,000 years and involve men, wearing only a thin loincloth, pushing and shoving one another to reach a sacred bag that has the word 'sominsai' printed on it.

The participants are not allowed to eat meat, fish, eggs and garlic for a week before the festival, and the man who eventually succeeds is said to be blessed with good fortune for the year.

Kanchu Misogi Matsuri, or Cold Season Purification Festival

When: January

Where: Teppozu Inari Shinto Shrine in central Tokyo. A similar procedure is also held yearly in Hokkaido.

What: The yearly festival draws about 100 participants, and is open to both males and females of all ages. Participants are predominantly men, who wear thin loincloths and headbands, while women are in underwear.

They take a dip in a pool of cold water at the shrine - splashing water on each other in the process - before hugging huge blocks of ice. The winter purification ritual is said to cleanse the body and soul, and take participants closer to mystical spirits who in turn bless them with success.

BODY PARTS

Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus

When: First Sunday in April

Where: Kanayama Shrine, Kawasaki

What: Huge effigies of male genitalia are displayed around Kawasaki - some of them named - while penis-shaped sweets, lollipops, vegetables and ornaments are also put on sale in this annual festival that is an ode to male genitalia.

The festival is said to honour a local blacksmith who created a metal penis that broke the teeth of a hungry teeth-baring demon that possessed a young woman's vagina, causing her to castrate her husband when they consummated their marriage on their wedding night.

Another legend has it that the festival honours a Shinto goddess who suffered burns to the lower half of her body when she gave birth to a fire god, and was healed by two gods that call the Kanayama Shrine home.

The festival now celebrates fertility and safe childbirth, while also raising awareness against venereal diseases.

Heso Matsuri, or Bellybutton Festival


Participants with faces drawn on their belly buttons in costume during the Heso Matsuri, or Bellybutton Festival, in Furano, Hokkaido. PHOTO: WWW.FURANOTOURISM.COM

When: July

Where: Furano, Hokkaido

What: The tradition started in 1969 when Furano decided to hold a town festival to bring its people together. The organisers, purportedly inspired by the town's location smack in the middle of Japan's northernmost prefecture, came up with the idea to celebrate the belly button.

Dancers draw faces on their belly buttons using paint and costumes, while hiding their real faces under giant hats. The festival grew from a mere 11 revellers in its first edition to the more than 5,000 partygoers who took part in the two-day festival last year.

This year's event takes place on July 28 and 29.

CATHARSIS

Nakizumo Matsuri, or Crying Sumo Festival

When: Various times throughout the year, with the Tokyo event on the fourth Sunday of April

Where: Various prefectures around the country, including Sensoji Temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district

What: In this festival dating back 400 years, grunting and growling sumo wrestlers square off against each other - but their mission is not to knock their opponents out of the ring.

Instead, they have to make babies cry within four seconds. Japanese beliefs dictate that the loud bawling of an infant can scare away demonic spirits and purify temples. It is also said that the louder a baby cries, the better an outlet of catharsis for them, making good health more likely in the future.

In the Tokyo edition, which sees about 100 sumo wrestlers and babies taking part each year, the winner is the wrestler who manages to make the baby he is holding shriek first. The rules vary by prefecture - elsewhere, the winner is the wrestler whose baby manages to hold out longer.

If the sumo wrestlers fail to do the job, a neutral referee comes on stage to terrify the babies.

Muon Bon Odori, or Silent Dance Festival

When: Mid-August

Where: Otamachi, Aichi Prefecture

What: It looks like a rave party, but with a catch: the entire festival is silent. Revellers instead dance along to music through their headphones in the annual affair that was hushed in 2009, after the noisy jamboree drew complaints from the elderly that it was too loud and had disrupted their sleep.

Akutai Matsuri, or Cursing Festival

When: December or January

Where: Saishoji Temple in Ashikaga, Tochigi; Atago Shrine on Mount Atago in Ibaraki; and Haushiwake Shrine in Yasawagi in Akita prefecture

What: The 300-year-old festival takes place on the third Sunday of December over at Atago Shrine on Mount Atago. Worshippers follow thirteen people dressed as mountain goblins up the mountain, hurling insults along the way. They receive blessings from a Shinto priest when they reach the summit.

The festivities take place on New Year's Eve over at Saishoji Temple, where worshippers take a 40-minute hike up the mountain to the temple, shouting insults and cursing along the way. They ring the temple bell when they reach the summit, to ring in the new year.

Meanwhile, over at Haushiwake Shrine in Yasawagi, the festival on the first Sunday of January sees worshippers taking turns to berate one another.

WARDING OFF EVIL

Abare Matsuri, or Rampage Festival


The Abare Matsuri, or Rampage Festival, at the Yasaka Jinja Shrine in Ishikawa, Japan. PHOTO: WWW.HOT-ISHIKAWA.JP

When: July

Where: Yasaka Jinja Shrine in Ishikawa Prefecture

What: Worshippers are encouraged to let their hair down and behave as insanely as possible to ward off evil and attract benevolent spirits.

Legend has it that the festival has its roots 350 years ago, when residents of the Notocho town came down with a mysterious illness. A local priest advised them to start this festival, which now involves smashing portable shrines and throwing lantern floats into the river that courses through the town.

Festival goers also pour sake over the objects, before destroying and burning them.

Paantu Punaha Matsuri, or Monster Praying Festival

When: Early September

Where: Miyakojima, Okinawa

What: During the century-old festival, meant to ward off bad luck, three men don tribal masks and dress up as the paantu spirit - said to be between a god and a demon - and cover themselves with mud and leaves at a sacred well.

They then chase children and adults, while splashing mud at people, houses and cars, and it is said that being touched by a paantu during the festival will bring good luck for the coming year.

The city has taken to announcing the date of the annual festival at short notice, in a bid to keep publicity at the minimum, after receiving numerous complaints by tourists unhappy at being soiled.