Faith and festivals have a centuries-old tradition. Faith starts with a belief and a hope that a particular ritual will bring some good fortune. When several people start participating in that ritual, it acquires the shape of a festival. Somin Festival of Japan is one such festival, in which enthusiastic young men participate in a physically harsh ritual to get food fortune.
The festival is also known as Kuroishi Hadaka Matsuri, as well as “Sominsai” (蘇民祭). But it is most commonly referred to as the “Naked Festival”. Another translation is “festival of reanimation and reanimation or resurrection of the Kokuseki temple”. Somin is also the name of the deity that protects against evil (Somin Shoorai 蘇民将来). The story that is told, is that the man named Somin, gave lodging and food to another poor-looking man. The man turned out to be a deity and bestowed a “ring of reeds” to ward off illness.
The event is held every year in Kokuseki temple in Mizusawa town, Iwate prefecture in Northern Japan in the coldest month of the year. As of recent, Sominsai festivals are also held in other locations throughout Japan. According to the old lunar calendar, it falls in the night of the old New Year, from day seven to eight. On this day, young men across Japan from the ages of 25 to 42 years come to the temple and test their mettle by trekking through a difficult icy course from the Kokuseki temple to the frozen Ruritsubo River while carrying a wooden charm.
Historically, the event was geared toward men who were of the “unlucky” ages or “yakudoshi” (厄年). Yakudoshi is believed to be the ages of 25, 42, and 61 in men. The age of 42 is considered to be a particular bad age (honyaku).
The history of the festival dates back to 500 years when worshippers in the temple contested to receive paper charms called Go-o from priests. People believed that these paper talismans brought good luck. The belief started when those who had received these charms started narrating how their fortunes changed after they received the talisman. Soon the word spread, and thousands of men started vying for the charms. Because the paper was easily torn, it was replaced by a wooden ofuda that is carried today.
The festival is known as the Somin naked festival in the western world. This is because participating men wear only a brief loincloth or “fundoshi”. The festival starts at midnight in the temple’s main hall when lights are turned off. A priest from a high window throws pairs of sacred sticks into the crowd of men in loincloth. Men rush to get hold of sticks, and those who are lucky enough to catch them thrust them in a wooden box. Then, then start their journey to the Ruritsubo River.
Prior to 2008, men didn’t care if their loincloth fell off. They would continue their activities in the nude, hence the festival’s nickname of the “nude festival”. Feminist groups and others rallied for enforcement against nudity, claiming also that the posters promoting the event were guilty of “sexual harassment”. The local police threatened arrest of any festival goer who exposed himself.
Carrying the wooden box, men race down the icy temple steps to an icier slope that ends at the Ruritsubo River. There, they put down the wooden talisman and pour the icy cold water (-5℃!) of the river over themselves using a bucket. After that, they grab their wooden charm again and race up the mountain to a statue for a prayer. Then, they return to the temple, and the whole process starts again. One lap takes about 20 to 30 minutes, and the participants must complete three laps. All the while, the men keep shouting, “Jassō! joyasa!” (Jassō means to exorcise evel, and joyasa is a chant for well-being). This is the typical cheer of the event, which encourages men to keep going, and it roughly translates to remove one of their wickedness.
In the hours before dawn, all the men climb the wall at the temple for more chanting. Finally, the “sacred bag” (also called a “somin” bag or “somin bukuru”, and is full of amulets or talisman, the somin shrai fu 蘇民将来符) is brought out, and all of the participants struggle to seize the bag and run out of the temple to the pre-determined “safe” spot. The person who seizes the somin bag is believed to receive good luck. This happens usually after 7am, making for a long and grueling night of spiritual fun and ritualistic competition. The amulet is special as well, as it is made from the wood of a special willow tree (doro yanagi ドロヤナギ).
The festival is a test of faith and endurance. At the end, the men are exhausted, frozen, and shivering with cold, but there is a huge smile on their faces. Apart from the matter of faith, the festival is a test of endurance. It is an amazing challenge and revives spirits and hope.
Historical and Current Event Dates:
2014: Feb 6-7
2013: Feb 2
2012: Jan 29
2011: Feb 10
The event has become a catalyst for many other loin-cloth events and festivals, including those for younger boys and girls! Take a look at the dozens of other “naked festivals” in Japan including the Sound of Many Footsteps celebration with Seifu junior and senior high school,