What are these 9,000 men competing for?

Since ancient times, Japanese people have always expressed their awe and gratitude to nature and their ancestors. Japanese festivals are rituals to give thanks to both for life and health. Over 600,000 festivals are held throughout the country each year; half of them are related to customs and enshrinement, and the other half are simply festivals held for events. Japan has an overwhelming number of festivals that are rich in content.

“Saidai-ji Eyo” is a Buddhist festival held on Shujoe Kechigan (the last day of Shujoe). A long time ago, Chua Shonin, the head priest of Saidai-ji Kannon-in Temple, tossed 5 good luck talismans (that were said to offer divine protection) to the people that had come to the temple. Tales of charms that bring their owners good fortune began to spread throughout the land. People who sought the talismans started to pore in, eventually leading to the creation of the festival. This festival has a rich history, dating back more than 500 years.

Making Shingi wooden stick
Shingi is made on the day of the festival
Participants of Saidai-ji Eyo must first purify their bodies with water.

At 10:00 pm on the night of the festival, the lights of the main hall are turned off, and two “Shingi” (wooden sticks in which a god is said to reside) are thrown out of the “Gofukumado” (window of good fortune). The competition to catch the Shingi, known as “Hon-oshi”, begins. Young men wearing only loincloths stomp the floor of the worship hall and ground, letting loose earth-shattering cries, as they attempt to get hold of the lucky sticks. There is even an anecdote saying that the sound of their shouts once reached as far as Kagawa Prefecture, located over 30km (18 miles) away. When seen through the eyes of a spectator, the scene resembles a picture scroll. A countless number of hands sway to and fro as a sea of bodies jostle each other, clouds of steam rising up into the air. It is said that about 3,000 people clamber about the front shrine, a place no larger than 170 square meters! Including those on the grounds, the total number of people exceeds 9,000.

Sticking a Shingi into rice
Those that manage to obtain the Shingi run into the Singi reception center and thrust it into a mound of rice

After the intense competition, the lucky pair that gets hold of the Shingi sprints to the “Iwainushi” (a representative of the Shingi corporate sponsor) and thrusts it into a heap of rice atop the “masu” (wooden square container), concluding the competition. Participants often get scrapes and bruises, and it is not unusual to see some injured more seriously. Every participant must put his life on the line in this festival.

* Since this is a dangerous festival, joining on the spot is strictly prohibited.

Written by: Hideo Nigata(NPO JAPAN MATSURI NETWORK Vice Chairman)

Saidai-ji Eyo

Date: 3rd Saturday of February every year, around 7:00 pm – 10:30 pm (Scheduled to be held on February 20 in 2016)

Venue: Saidai-ji Kannon-in, Saidai-ji Naka, Higashi-ku, Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture

Directions: 10 min. walk from Saidai-ji Station on the JR Ako Line

To participate: Apply at the change room in Saidai-ji Kannon-in Temple by 9:00 am on the day of the festival