In the Japanese prefecture of Okayama, every year thousands of men strip down to their loin cloths to compete to find one of two 'lucky sticks'.

It is estimated 10,000 men (note, 'stick hunting' is a male only sport) participated in the ancient ceremony at Kinryozan Saidaiji Buddhist temple, last Saturday. The event is not without danger of injury, but those competing see the symbolic prize as worth the risk.

Out of 10,000 men only two will emerge victorious, grasping the lucky sticks. Photo / Getty Images
Out of 10,000 men only two will emerge victorious, grasping the lucky sticks. Photo / Getty Images

At the outset, participants throw cold water over themselves. This is a symbolic act of purification before the main event.

Next come the sticks.

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Cold water: The festival in February has happend for over 500 years, on the banks of the Yoshii river. Photo / Getty Images
Cold water: The festival in February has happend for over 500 years, on the banks of the Yoshii river. Photo / Getty Images

The 20cm batons known as "Shingi", were hurled into the seething masses. Those who were successful in finding them are destined to be the luckiest men for the coming year.
But in order to gain this good fortune, they must endure cold water, discomfort and near-mortal combat for a chance at the sticks.

At around 10pm the temple's head monk drop the sacred sticks from the window. Photo / Getty Images
At around 10pm the temple's head monk drop the sacred sticks from the window. Photo / Getty Images

As the 510th anniversary of the bizarre tradition, Saidaiji-eyo began in Muromachi era Japan.

In the freezing February waters of the Yoshii river, in evening darkness, contestants first must bathe as they purify and prepare to compete for the Shingi.

Following this, the lights go out.

It is then up to the temple's chief monk to hurl the two sticks into the crowd. This he does from a window high up on the building.

The contest can take hours, as the men jostle and feel in the darkness for the holy sticks.
Finally two contestants will emerge, victorious grasping the sticks.

Purified: The men clean in the Yoshii river before entering the the Saidaiji Temple. Photo / Getty Images
Purified: The men clean in the Yoshii river before entering the the Saidaiji Temple. Photo / Getty Images

It's a bizarre but celebrated highlight of the traditional folk calendar.

Apart from luck, the sought-after wooden shafts bring fertility to the finder. Not just for the finder, but their livestock and coming harvests.

Men cram into the temple waiting for priests to drop the sacred batons. Photo / Getty Images
Men cram into the temple waiting for priests to drop the sacred batons. Photo / Getty Images

Coinciding with the Chinese lunar New Year festivals, it has been blended with lantern festivals and lights from other parts of Asia.

Which is just as well, as contestants welcome any source of light after the confused scramble for batons in the pitch blackness.

Naked festival: 10,000 men cram into the temple, which is hardly big enough to hold them. Photo / Getty Images
Naked festival: 10,000 men cram into the temple, which is hardly big enough to hold them. Photo / Getty Images

Candles are offered at the temple following the massive tussle in the dark.