Dating back over 1200 years, the Hadaka Matsuri festival takes place at several small-town locations throughout Japan. Its origins lie in a decree issued by Emperor Shotoko in 767, which ordered the nation to offer prayers in order to dispel a plague. The Hadaka Matsuri now takes place yearly, at a rotating date on the lunar calendar.
Get your kit off, for good luck
The biggest Japanese festival is held at the Konomiya shrine in the centre of Inazawa. Here, more than 9000 men, clad in nothing but buttock-exposing giant 'nappies' called fundoshis, crush together to exorcise their misfortunes. They do this by attempting to touch the ordained Naked Man, thus transferring all their bad luck to him.
Each year one volunteer is randomly selected to be the Shin-otoko, or Naked Man. Dozens of men, mostly in their twenties, hope to be honoured with the role. Three days before the festival the chosen one is consecrated inside the temple; a secret ritual is performed to purify his body and expunge his sins. On the morning of the big day he appears before an invited group of local VIPs and temple benefactors, who are allowed to touch him before he's released to the masses.
Around midday on the day of the festival, men of all ages appear on the streets outside the temple. Dressed in their fundoshis, they hand ribbons to onlookers while getting pie-eyed on vats of sake. Communal chants of 'Washyoi! Washyoi!' (meaning something close to 'enhance yourself') start up as the men lose their reserve and start throwing sake at each other. Impromptu arm wrestling and headlock contests ensue.
As the mayhem continues a huge bamboo branch, about nine metres in length, is presented to each man so that he can write his new year's wishes on a piece of cloth and tie it to the leaves. By 2pm the branch is collected and the men, swaying with sake, run through the streets to the main temple. As more and more groups arrive, the scene becomes increasingly anarchic. Old men scream for the Naked Man to appear, and yakuza (local mafia), easily identifiable by their many tattoos, often start fights much to the delight of the onlookers. From above, the scene resembles a giant, naked, no-rules rugby scrum. The noise levels reach deafening proportions and buckets of water and sake are thrown into the steaming throng.
Just as it seems the whole crowd is about to break free and embark on a mass looting spree, there's a disturbance at the far end of the mob. Surrounded by four 'protectors', whose job it is to stop him being killed, the Naked Man begins to inch his way through the crowd. As the men surge forward it's impossible to see just how many are getting trampled underfoot. It's possible, however, to make out one gaijin (foreigner), screaming for his life. Foolhardy foreigners are allowed to compete in the festival and apparently there's three in the melee this year. It's not an experience any of them are likely to be repeating.
After half an hour of screams, chants and the nauseating sound of bone on skull, it's just possible to make out the Naked Man staggering, bloody and bruised, and minus most of his hair and teeth, through the temple entrance to safety. The participants, many now missing their fundoshis, crawl and limp away, looking for another shot of sake to numb the pain.
All in good fun
The drunken revelry continues until 3am, when a more serene (and markedly Shinto) event takes place. To the sound of gagaku (sacred Shinto music) played on flutes and drums, the Naked Man appears with a slice of a giant rice cake (or mochi) strapped to his back. Barely capable of walking, the Naked Man is led by the priests to a patch of earth where the cake, symbolising the bad fortune of those who managed to touch him, is buried. The entire rice cake, paid for by the townspeople, weighs an incredible four tonnes. The remainder is displayed the next morning, carved into pieces and sold to people as a good luck charm. Later that day, I spot the shaking and wounded Naked Man, distributing rice cake and trying hard to stay upright.
In terms of honour and stamina, it's hard to imagine a more difficult endurance test. A grateful group of young men take their souvenir slice from the Shin-otoko and, having clearly recovered their reserve, smile shyly at me. "We touched him yesterday!" says one. "I've been trying for eight years straight. I'll always remember this moment." His friends hug him. They didn't manage to touch the Naked Man and transfer their evil spirits. Despite their injuries, the nakedness, the mud and the brawling, they all say they'll be back next year.
What do you think of the Naked Man festival? Would you ever give it a go?