Every February, thousands of nearly-naked men run through Japanese temples to ensure a year of good luck.

Even in a land as eccentric as Japan, the annual Hakada Matsuri – affectionately known as ‘The Naked Man Festival’ – is something to behold.

The event takes place in temple grounds across Japan, with participants wearing nothing but a revealing white loincloth, known as a ‘fundoshi’.

The goal is to get a handful of straw – blessed by a priest – out of the temple grounds before the others grab it.

Those who succeed are guaranteed a year’s worth of good luck and prosperity.

(© Olivia Lee)
(© Olivia Lee)

The festival is said to date back to the 1500s.

The Chief Priest of Saidaiji Temple in Okayama City used to bestow worshippers to his shrine with lucky charms.

Word got out, more people began requesting the charms and soon the priest had no choice but to throw them out into the crowd.

And so the scramble began.

(© Olivia Lee)
(© Olivia Lee)

While Okayama City is still home to the largest Hadaka Matsuri in Japan, I went to a smaller version in Kyushu.

The event usually takes place in the bitter cold of January or February.

On the day I watched, temperatures hovered at a balmy zero degrees.

Semi-naked, and fuelled on beer and sake, the men charged into the grounds. The crowd, wrapped snugly in coats and scarfs, doused them in buckets of cold water to chants of ‘wasshoi, wasshoi’ (heave-ho).

Sufficiently lubricated, the participants began to clamber frantically on each other to grab the tiny bundle of straw.

I’ve never seen so many naked bums.

It many ways it was like a rave — a mass of flesh, wet hair and arms thrust high. The group was so tightly packed it’s not surprising people get injured each year.

After about 30 minutes of scuffling, the event came to a climatic end. One man knelt high on the crowds’ shoulders; the straw locked between his teeth.

Was he the victor? I couldn’t tell.

(© Olivia Lee)

The participants slapped each other on the back and rubbed their neighbours’ bellies.

The beer was obviously still coursing through their veins.

The main event over, I joined the queue for some festival food. Taking care not to touch the sweaty body in front of me, I noticed a piece of straw blow across the ground near my feet.

I bent down and picked it up.

Just in case.

Main image: Participants in the annual Hakada Matsuri festival in Japan (© Olivia Lee)