Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Naked Japanese Men Get Lucky

With only a skimpy loincloth to protect their modesty, thousands of men brave freezing temperatures to fight for lucky charms that are thrown into the crowd by a priest at Japan's annual Naked Man Festival.

Hadaka Matsuri (translated as "Naked Man Festival") is a Japanese festival in which participants wear a minimum amount of clothing in the hope of gaining luck for the entire year.

Naked festivals are held in dozens of places throughout Japan every year, but the most famous one is the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri held at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, where the festival originated.

A writhing mass of sweaty worshipers wrestled for elbow-room inside Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan, in the hope of catching the sacred batons.

Around 10,000 hardy souls celebrating the religious festival stepped under ice-cold fountains to purify their bodies before risking life and limb in a mysterious ceremony dating back some 500 years.

"It can get very rough," said 62-year-old auto mechanic Kazuhiko Nishigami, bare-chested and ready to rumble.  "You have to write down your blood type on a form and tuck it into your loincloth in case you get seriously hurt."

Most who participated in the Naked Man Festival, suffered no more than a few bumps and bruises after scrapping over a pair of wooden sticks, measuring one and a half inches in diameter and eight inches in length, believed to bring good fortune to whoever catches them.

But revelers have been crushed to death in the past in a melee that makes Tokyo's infamous rush-hour trains look like a walk in the park.

And it's easy to see how fatalities could occur when the lights suddenly go off and priests drop the mystical charms from the temple's rafters into the heaving crowd below.

As holy water was splashed from above, camera flashes illuminated the sea of bodies like disco lights at a rave -- before all hell broke loose. 

In a scene reminiscent of Dante's "Inferno", steam rises as thousands of groaning men, faces contorted with pain, thrust their arms upwards from the suffocating pit below, as if begging for forgiveness -- or at least a pair of pants or a shirt to keep warm.

Those who snah one of the holy talismans tossed from above have to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of it as they come under attack by rivals desperate for the juju it bestows.

Fuelled by beer and sake, many festival-goers came to blows.  "I was lucky to escape," said firefighter Kosuke Yasuhara, clutching one of the talismans.  "It dropped right in the middle of our group," added the 38-year-old. "I had to quickly slip it into my loincloth to hide it and then force my way out.  This charm is a gift from the gods-- I believe it will deliver us a bouncing baby when it's born in April."

High priest Zenko Tsuboi insisted the festival was not an orgy of violence, even if ambulance sirens have provided an unwanted soundtrack in previous years.  "We want to remind people this is a religious festival so we have become much stricter these days about alcohol and rough behavior."

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