Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (109): The ice walk

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 15, 2010

HEARING OR READING the phrase “naked festival” might generate a response that is positively Pavlovian—just as the Russian doctor’s dogs started salivating at the sound of the dinner bell, the shaggy among us would surely begin drooling in the realm of their imaginations. Even the prudish or the bashful might detect an involuntary acceleration in their pulse rates.

The Japanese hold naked festivals, or hadaka matsuri, throughout the archipelago year round, but few, if any, would appeal to anyone’s prurient interest. To begin with, most of the festivals are for male participants who aren’t in the buff, but wear loincloths similar to those of sumo rikishi when doing battle in the ring. Further, many of those festivals are conducted in mid-winter as a trial of the participants’ grit and spirit to overcome the elements. Finally, they often resemble sporting events, in which teams or individuals compete for the possession of an object, sometimes being drenched with cold water by onlookers. And yes, those who overcome and prevail are believed to have done so with the help divine assistance.

The Hirakasa Hadaka Mairi, more accurately a naked pilgrimage than a festival, is held on 8 January in Hachimantai, Iwate. It’s considered unusual because most of the participants are female, but neither the lecherous nor those with an exquisitely fine sense of curvilinear beauty would have been aroused. That’s because the intangible cultural property of the city is known as one of the few festivals conducted as an exercise in religious asceticism for women. The participants dress in white from head to toe and hold pieces of paper called kuchigami in the mouth to prevent the entry of evil spirits. That would seem to be enough to stymie any would-be Lotharios from jump street.

This year, 28 people took part in the event held in supplication for household safety and a good harvest, and 15 of them were women. They started by dumping water over themselves for purification, and considering that recent air temperatures can be calculated on the fingers of one hand, I sure hope they got good and spiritual. After several religious rites at the Miyata Shinto shrine were finished at 9:00 a.m., they departed on a 10-kilometer walk to the Yasaka Shinto shrine. During their trek, they carried long poles called kenzao and rang small bells.

The relatively light clothing worn by the women is one of the reasons this is considered an ascetic ritual. Iwate is in the northern part of the country, and the temperature is usually about 2.5° C in early January. This year it was minus 9.6° C on festival day.

The festival is said to have originated shortly after 1710 to pray for the safety of the local inhabitants after the eruption of Mt. Iwate. Women became the primary participants during the Pacific War, when most of the men were away, and they continued the event to pray for the safety of the soldiers at the front.

If I met the winter walkers, I’d take my hat off to them for their determination and wish them well—but not if I were outdoors. Heck, I live in relatively balmy Kyushu, and even here at this time of year I wear long underwear and two layers of socks indoors.

One Response to “Matsuri da! (109): The ice walk”

  1. Weekly J-Links 16…

    The time has come for the 16th installment of the weekly collection of Japan links. Enjoy! 🙂 Articles: Matsuri da! (109): The ice walk Auschwitz Peace Museum Japan in Fukushima Isotake Guro Coming of Age Day – Meiji Shrin……

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