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When the clock struck midnight on the morning of February 18, 9,000 loinclothed men screaming the collective “yahoo” word “washoi” at the top of their voices threw themselves into a desperate struggle to grab and hold on to one of the two large or even any of the lesser “good-luck” sticks blessed by the gods. The 2007 Saidaiji “Hadaka Matsuri,” meaning “Naked Festival,” had reached its climax.

A few of the combatants ended that night in western Japan’s Okayama Prefecture counting their good fortune and clutching a sacred talisman. Most left with no more than a few minor scrapes and a story to last a lifetime. One unfortunate, crushed to death in the melee, didn’t leave under his own steam at all.

That fatality notwithstanding, popular support for the Hadaka Matsuri among both participants and organizers is as enthusiastic as ever, with all sides agreed that this is an important cultural event that must endure despite its inherent dangers. Moreover, it remains a vital, money-earning tourist attraction for a small town, a unique experience for foreign participants and a continuing legacy handed down from the locals’ ancestors.

Originally a ceremony involving a prayer for peace and a good harvest, Hadaka Matsuri has morphed into an epic occasion that attracts thousands and is known as “Naked Man” in Western circles. These days, the event involves several thousand men wearing fundoshi (loincloths similar to those worn by sumo wrestlers) running around the temple for hours. They purify themselves in a fountain, visit each shrine on the precincts and gather at the main temple in an effort to secure the good-luck talismans called shingi that are thrown out into the crowd by monks at midnight.

“Hadaka Matsuri is the biggest tourist attraction for Saidaiji,” said Yukihiro Oyama of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said he believes it dates back some 500 years to the fabled Muromachi Period (1338-1573). “It is the busiest day of our year.”

This year’s festivities drew 9,000 fundoshi-clad participants and 15,000 spectators, but there were many others also involved in staging the event, Yukihiro said.

In fact, festival food and shopping booths stretching for several blocks lit up the rain-beaten Saidaiji night with the welcoming glow of cooking fires and hanging lanterns. Following the festival, the booths moved in to the temple grounds and remained open for the rest of the weekend.

A combined force of 658 policemen, 744 firemen and a party of 230 others authorized by the chamber were on hand to provide security for the festival — primarily by serving as human walls to separate the spectators from near-naked, shingi-seeking men.

But the security measures were intended to protect spectators, rather than prevent fighting among participants, Yukihiro said.

“Once the struggle for the shingi begins, I don’t think anything can be done in the middle of the fight,” he said.

In response to the death of one man this year, Yukihiro said that there are rules in place for participating in the festival, but many people fail to follow them.

“We hope they will obey them better as a result of this sad circumstance,” he said.

Those rules ban all would-be participants with tattoos, anyone wearing anything other than a fundoshi and traditional jikatabi (outdoor socks with thin rubber soles) — and any fighting for shingi outside the temple walls. In addition, Yukihiro said that the most important safety factor is participants remembering “to keep their morals about them.”

“All those involved, including the people responsible for holding the Hadaka Matsuri, should realize that this is about making a prayer,” Yukihiro said. “If they do, the festival will be held more safely.”

However, frequent reveler Akihiro Ishizawa appeared unimpressed by such entreaties. “I’ve never thought about it,” he said, when asked if Hadaka Matsuri is safe enough. Instead, he said, he accepts the possibility of getting hurt and thinks only of laying his hands on a shingi.

“For example, even if I were to break a bone, if I thought I could take a shingi I would want to take it.”

Ishizawa runs the Iyachiko coffee house just a few meters from Saidaiji Station and the massive statue in front of it depicting several men reaching for a shingi. This year was 27-year-old Ishizawa’s 13th time participating in Hadaka Matsuri.

“My grandfather did it and my father, too — this has been important to my family for a long time, so of course I want to do it as well,” he said.

Ishizawa keeps a well-loved book of photographs from Hadaka Matsuri with the magazines in his coffee shop, and he flips through the worn pages as he talks about the festival’s significance to him.

“It’s a ceremonial event after all,” he said. “I always feel an incredibly important feeling like being in a church.”

On that rainy festival night this year, though, Ishizawa did not take home a shingi. But neither did he receive any injuries, despite being in the throng as the talismans were dropped.

When asked what he was thinking the instant the sticks were thrown, Ishizawa admitted that his attentions were distracted by something else that night.

“This year there was someone who passed out right in front of me, so I was thinking that I had to help that person,” he said. “But last year at that time I was thinking only that I must take the shingi immediately.”

Though aware of the fatality at this year’s festival, Ishizawa doesn’t hesitate to pledge his continued participation.

“I’ll go. I’ll go until I die,” he said.

That might be slightly overstating it from Andrew Philpot’s point of view, but when asked if he was glad he joined in this year’s Hadaka Matsuri the 23-year-old Australian living and working in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, as an English teacher, said: “Absolutely,” adding that “I’m not really a naked-type guy — it’s not really my comfort zone — but I figure it’s such an interesting and unique event that you’ve got to try it if you’re here.”

This year, together with fellow teacher Jon Ho, 26, from America, Philpot organized JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program Association) members from Hyogo Prefecture in the hope they could bag a shingi through teamwork. Their tactics included wrapping colored insulating tape around their fingers so they could easily identify each other in the crowds at the temple.

Though he too branded himself with tape, Ho was less concerned with obtaining a shingi than in simply experiencing the festival. “I wanted to check out something in Japan that would be truly unique,” he said — while also conceding that there were a few times that night when he felt “a little less than safe.”

One instance he described involved a mass of people converging on one “lucky” participant clutching a shingi. Ho said that though he saw what was happening, he decided that getting involved at that point would just be too dangerous.

“Some would say it’s silly not to jump in, but at least I still have all my fingers and no scrapes or bruises that are too serious,” he said. “I think I ended up all right by using a little common sense.”

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