Iwate: Festival with 1,000-Year History Ends in Northeastern Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Men wearing only loincloths compete for a hemp bag at the last Somin-sai festival on Saturday.

OSHU, Iwate (Jiji Press) — The major Somin-sai festival with a history of over 1,000 years was held for the last time at a Buddhist temple in the northeastern prefecture of Iwate on Saturday.

At Kokuseki-ji Temple in the city of Oshu, there will be no more Somin-sai because it became difficult to continue the annual event due a shortage of participants reflecting the aging of the local population.

Somin-sai at the temple, often referred to as one of the most bizarre festivals in Japan, was an event held usually through the night during the Lunar New Year period to pray for an abundant harvest and good health. It was unique in that men wearing only loincloths competed for a hemp bag containing talismans.

The festival made headlines in 2008, when East Japan Railway Co., or JR East, refused to display a poster of the festival showing a man with thick chest hair, saying that it “could cause discomfort” to some people.

This year, the competition for the bag was held for the first time in four years after a break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the festival was shortened to between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. from the usual duration of all night.

Daigo Fujinami, 41, chief priest of Kokuseki-ji, said the end of the festival was decided because of the aging of the temple’s “danka” patrons and local residents, who are main participants in the event.

“I’m glad we were able to carry it out without a problem until the end. I’d like to thank all of those who cared about it,” he said.

“I still can’t believe” that the festival ended, said Soichiro Nagaoka, 57, a university employee from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture. He said he participated in the festival about 10 times.