Feb 2, 2018

Dontosai: "Naked Men" and A Wonderful Winter Bonfire

Dontosai: "Naked Men" and A Wonderful Winter Bonfire photo
This is the Dontosai I always remember.
    Every January 14th in Miyagi, this festival rolls around. The main event always seems to be the bonfire near Shiogama Shrine where townspeople discard their burnable New Year's decorations in paper bags (some left over from fukubukuro) by throwing them atop flaming heaps. Legend says that anyone warmed by this fire will have great health in the coming year, an immunity given by a community's worth of festive holiday cheer bundled together and put to better use as kindling. The fire department is also present at the event, ensuring the festivities do not get out of hand. After throwing the bag of burnables into the fire, many people choose to partake of the festival food stalls located along the path to the easy entrance to the shrine.

    It was not until I met a Canadian living here for a one year stint with the JET program that I heard about what the festival was more famous for in some circles. "Are you going to the naked festival?" she asked.     

    My cheeks may have reddened as I responded in the negative, unsure of what she could be talking about. "I'm afraid I can't afford to do much traveling." I may have countered, assuming that such a festival must be taking place in Tokyo or Osaka or some other more urban location.

    "No, no. It's here in Shiogama. A bunch of naked people run down the streets." She said.

    I pondered for a few moments if it could be possible that some mass nudist parade was regularly occurring in the town where I had been living for half a decade and I had somehow not been aware of it. When asked later my Japanese husband, a Shiogama native, was quick to fix this problem. "She means Dontosai."

    "The bonfire?" I asked. Massive piles of warm flames I can remember.

    "Yeah," he said. "There are people who run about..."

    "They're not naked, though." I had to say. I would have remembered them being naked. As a moderately prudish American, vast swaths of nudity do still catch me off-guard. I am usually quite aware of being in the presence of naked people, and the Dontosai participants had never engaged my inner nudity-alarm.

    He shrugged. It is true that the marchers for Dontosai do not wear much clothing. Simple loin cloths over white knee-length tights or boxers seems to be the standard attire. Thermal bandages to cover the torso can also be seen especially on the female participants. While these minimal clothing options fail to offer much more than a little privacy in the cold of a Miyagi January, they still render the enthusiastic crowd less naked than merely under-dressed.

Dontosai: "Naked Men" and A Wonderful Winter Bonfire photo

    This year, I heard the groups of volunteers walk briskly through the streets, chanting the expected , "Rashoi, Rashoi!" at regular intervals while they followed the procession around the city and back to the shrine. Some schools and clubs bring participants together, as do some companies in the area. Interestingly, some groups seem to have the option of choosing a more thematically appropriate outfit selection, including longer pants in some cases and uniforms in others. This isn't to say that the participants had it easy. It was freezing out there.
Dontosai: "Naked Men" and A Wonderful Winter Bonfire photo
I'm guessing they're a baseball club or school team?
Dontosai: "Naked Men" and A Wonderful Winter Bonfire photo
Maybe some form of martial arts?

    On the same night, Osaki Hachiman Shrine in Sendai also hosts a Dontosai festival in the same manner, complete with half-naked volunteers, so if you're in Miyagi in mid-January and looking to watch an interesting half-naked pilgrimmage option, you have two to choose from. There are similar "naked" festivals (hadaka matsuri) in a number of places in Japan, the most famous of which apparently occurring in Okayama, in the southern part of Honshu between Kyoto and Hiroshima later in February.
Dontosai: "Naked Men" and A Wonderful Winter Bonfire photo



A working mom/writer/teacher, Jessica explores her surroundings in Miyagi-ken and Tohoku, enjoying the fun, quirky, and family friendly options the area has to offer.


  • helloalissa

    on Feb 7

    Haha definitely not naked. Glad to read about other winter fire festivals. It's surprising that they wear the traditional loincloths even during winter. It's much warmer in Kyushu, but we got to see lots of bare bums over here at Oniyo Festival.

  • JTsuzuki

    on Feb 10

    @helloalissa Wow! Yeah, that makes sense when and where warmth permits. I always thought it was an amazing thing, these people running through the freezing streets, wearing next to nothing, but next to nothing is still not nothing.