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Japan’s Naked Festival, Hadaka Matsuri, canceled for all but a select few

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Japan's Naked Festival, Hadaka Matsuri, canceled for all but a select few
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(CNN) — This time a year ago, thousands gathered for Japan’s annual Hadaka Matsuri — also popularly known as the “Naked Festival”– in Okayama prefecture in the southern part of Honshu island.

In today’s climate of social distancing, the video highlights from last year’s event (see above) are a surreal reminder of how much has changed since then.

Also known as Saidaiji Eyo, Hadaka Matsuri takes place on the third Saturday of February at the Saidaiji Kannonin Temple, about a 30-minute train ride from Okayama city. And this year was no exception.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has cast its long shadow over 2021 proceedings, forcing organizers to pare things down significantly.

A battle between 10,000 men

Hadaka Matsuri celebrates the blessings of a bountiful harvest, prosperity and fertility.

In normal times, it starts mid-afternoon with an event for young boys — aimed at fostering interest in younger generations. In the evening, the 10,000 or so male participants spend an hour or two running around the temple grounds in preparation and purify themselves with freezing cold water, before cramming themselves into the main temple building.

They aren’t as naked as the festival’s name suggests. They sport a minimal amount of clothing; usually a Japanese loincloth called a “fundoshi” and a pair of white socks called “tabi.”

In this picture taken on February 18, 2017, worshippers wait for the priest to throw the sacred batons during the annual Hadaka Matsuri at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama.

In this picture taken on February 18, 2017, worshippers wait for the priest to throw the sacred batons during the annual Hadaka Matsuri at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

When the lights go out at 10 p.m., a priest throws 100 bundles of twigs and two lucky 20-centimeter-long sacred shingi batons into the crowd from a window four meters above.

It’s a scene that would be unthinkable today. The men, packed in like sardines, jostle with each other to get hold of one of the bundles and/or the two sticks. Whoever succeeds is guaranteed a year of good fortune, according to legend. (The shingi are more sought after than the less-coveted twigs, which can be taken home.)

The whole event lasts around 30 minutes and participants emerge with a few cuts, bruises and sprained joints.

Visitors normally come from all across Japan and a few from abroad to take part.

But event organizers confirmed to CNN Travel that this year’s Hadaka Matsuri event, which took place on February 20, was limited to only a select, socially distanced group of 100 or so men who had caught the shingi in past years, and was closed to spectators.

Rather than battle for the batons, the men gathered at the Saidaiji Kannonin Temple to pray for fertility, an end to the pandemic and world peace, while observing safety measures including social distancing.

Uninterrupted for 500 years

As part of the Naked Festival, participants purify themselves with freezing cold water before entering the main temple.

As part of the Naked Festival, participants purify themselves with freezing cold water before entering the main temple.

Trevor Williams/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

Why not just cancel the entire event?

In a statement highlighting their reasons for going ahead with a severely downsized version of the festival, organizers noted that it’s has continued uninterrupted for over 500 years.

“In discussion with the chief priest and committee members, we have reached the conclusion that we need to pray (for) Eyo now,” said Saijaiji Eyo chairman Minoru Omori. Eyo relates to a term called “ichiyo-raifuku,” which means “to withstand the harsh, cold winter and reach the warmth of spring.”

“In other words, we pray for good luck after continuous bad things,” said Omori.

The Naked Festival evolved from a ritual that started 500 years ago during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), when villagers competed to grab paper talismans, which were given out by a priest at the Saidaiji Kannonin Temple.

More and more villagers wanted those lucky paper talismans and the ritual grew in size. But they realized that when they went to grab the paper it ripped. Their clothes just got in the way too, so they eventually did away with them and exchanged paper for wood, explained Mieko Itano, a spokeswoman from the Okayama tourism board, in a 2020 interview with CNN Travel.

With its long heritage, the festival was also designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset in 2016. It’s one of several “naked festivals” held across Japan, with another held at Yotsukaido in Chiba prefecture, featuring men in loincloths fighting and carrying kids through mud as a method of exorcism.

Japan and Covid-19

Daily Covid-19 cases have been in decline in recent weeks in Japan, though Tokyo is among several prefectures under a state of emergency to control the virus. The country has reported more than 424,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 7,000 deaths.

The pandemic forced organizers to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics last year, with the games set to begin on July 23, 2021.

Tokyo officials are now grappling with the issue of how to pull off what could prove to be the most complex sporting event ever held — one involving more than 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries.

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Meet Afghanistan’s only female tour guide

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Meet Afghanistan's only female tour guide
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(CNN) — For many people who work as tour guides, showing people around a new city involves a little bit of getting off the beaten track. But when there is no track at all, you just have to blaze one yourself.

That has been the story of Fatima, the only woman working as a tour guide in Afghanistan. The 22-year-old (who asked that CNN not use her surname for safety reasons) grew up leading sheep through the countryside, and now she leads tourists through the streets of Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan.

The making of a trailblazer

The youngest of eight children, Fatima is the only one of her siblings to be unmarried and to have gotten an education.

She grew up in rural Gohr Province, where she says there was no schooling available to girls, but she convinced her family to let her take lessons if she brought in enough of an income from sheep herding.

When Fatima was nine, her family settled in Herat. Though she was able to get some informal education, she mostly stayed at home helping her mother. Getting an education wasn’t as simple as just enrolling in the local comprehensive.

When Fatima couldn’t afford notebooks, she says she wrote with a stick in the sand. She practiced her English by listening to BBC radio, which she could pick up when high enough in the hills.

Unlike some kids, Fatima didn’t grow up dreaming of working in tourism — not only was it not traditional for women to work, she says she didn’t even know that giving tours was a job.

“I thought a lot during these years, how sitting at home would not solve any problem,” she says. “My brothers and sisters were forced to get married. It was so sad for me. I decided that I would not continue in their tradition. That was how I decided to work.”

First step: work on her English. Fatima signed up for Facebook and began joining groups for people interested in history. Tired of people who only knew Afghanistan as a place of war and conflict, she says she started writing regular posts about places in her country that foreigners might not know about.

Herat is in northwestern Afghanistan, not far from the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan and has been inhabited since the fifth century BCE, making it an interesting place for a history buff to grow up.

After she began writing her posts, everything changed.

Fatima says started getting comments and responses from her new online friends. In 2020, one of them — a man known as “Big Tom” — reached out to her saying he was going to be traveling in Afghanistan and would she be interested in showing him around in Herat?

She said yes. They went to the Herat Citadel, to the National Museum and to a traditional tea house.

Tom recommended her to someone else, and Fatima continued to get work by word of mouth. Eventually she came to the attention of Untamed Borders, a boutique travel agency that specializes in trips to more inaccessible areas.

After meeting Fatima and traveling through the city with her, Tom recommended that the company hire her. And they did hire her in late 2020, which is how the young self-taught woman became her country’s first female professional tour guide.

“Having a female guide gives our guests a whole new perspective,” says James Willcox, Untamed Borders’ founder. “As well as being well informed as a guide, Fatima gives our guests a personal insight into her life as an Afghan woman. We try to give our guests a framework of information to give context to the experiences they have in Afghanistan, and Fatima adds to that in a big way.”

"In the future I want to write about girls like my sisters," says Fatima.

“In the future I want to write about girls like my sisters,” says Fatima.

Courtesy Untamed Borders

Fatima’s new career caused some friction in her traditional family at a time when her siblings were already challenging their father’s more conservative views.

She asserted her independence, telling her father: “Right now, my brothers and sisters [say] that if we are not satisfied in life it is because of you. If I have a bad life now, it’s because of me.”

Though he has come around to Fatima’s work, she says her mother has always given her blessing. “My mother is happy. She is supporting me. Right now, she is my everything.”

The rocky road smoothens out

Of course, being a pioneer is never easy.

Fatima says many people in her life, including some of her own family members, have told her that it’s too dangerous for a woman to work, especially if it means interacting with men one-on-one.

She says children have thrown stones at her while she’s guiding tourists through the local market. People have shouted profanities at her.

Sadly, these are not isolated experiences. According to data from the United Nations, only about 19% of women in Afghanistan are employed outside of the home.

Fatima has used money from her work to enroll in university.

Fatima has used money from her work to enroll in university.

Courtesy Untamed Borders

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, more commonly known as UN Women, elucidates: “About 64%t of Afghans agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home, however, they still face a multitude of barriers, including restrictions, harassment, discrimination and violence, as well as practical hurdles such as a lack of job experience, employment skills and education.”

Fatima says that the support of her employers and the people she has met through giving tours are what keep her motivated. There’s also the implication of what could happen if she does quit: “Challenges are always a part of my life. If I give up, then other women will never start.”

To keep herself safe, she dresses modestly while on the job and never goes out with a group late at night.

Afghanistan’s tourism industry peaked in the relatively safe 1970s, with an average of 90,000 foreign tourists coming per year. Data is spotty and inconsistent, but in 2013 the country’s deputy minister of tourism told the New York Times that the number was closer to 15-20,000 per year.

Many countries, including the United States, have travel advisories in place and encourage their citizens not to visit Afghanistan.

However, choosing which countries to visit and how can make a significant difference on the ground. Tourism is an industry where not everyone is required to have a college degree, which can make the bar of entry lower and easier.

Fatima’s tour guide income helps to support her family, and it also means she can afford to go to college. After passing the entrance exams, Fatima says she’s been able to enroll at Herat University and is now studying journalism. On the side, she says she teaches English to 41 girls in a refugee school.

The education, she says, isn’t just for her. Fatima tutors her nieces and nephews in English and helps pay for some of their school fees and supplies. This is generational change in action — the sons and daughters of siblings who could not get an education are now going to government schools.

If travel, in its purest form, is about expanding our view of the world around us, this is certainly true for Fatima, even when she is the one showing people her homeland instead of visiting theirs.

She says she dreams of changing roles for a while and letting someone else guide her — her top choice for a travel destination, fitting for a lover of history and culture, is Tibet.

Most of Fatima’s dreams, though, are closer to home. She says she hopes to open a school to train tour guides. It would be open to both boys and girls, she says, but “ladies first,” as there are fewer job opportunities available to women.

“I am the first lady in Afghanistan to guide people,” she says, “but I do not want to be the last.”

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Canada Post is sending every household a postcard to send to a loved one for free

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Canada Post is sending every household a postcard to send to a loved one for free
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The government postal agency is planning to send about 13.5 million postcards across the county, according to a news release. They are part of the “Write Here Wrote Now” campaign established by the Canada Post in September to encourage letter writing as a means of connection.

“Meaningful connection is vital for our emotional health, sense of community and overall well-being,” Doug Ettinger, president and CEO of Canada Post, said in a statement.

“Canada Post wants everyone to stay safe, but also stay in touch with the people who matter to them.”

There will be six different versions of the postcard, which will be randomly sent to each household. The messages on the cards will be ones of appreciation, love and thanks, according to the release. The cards can be sent anywhere for free in the country.

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Premium economy: Why this will be the hottest airplane seat in 2021

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Premium economy: Why this will be the hottest airplane seat in 2021
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(CNN) — Premium economy. The two words might seem a weird combination in airline terms, since it’s a rare airline where economy seats feel premium these days. But these seats between coach and business class on international flights were heating up even before Covid-19, and as we all start to travel again in 2021, they’re set to be a must-fly for many passengers.

Why? It’s a combination of factors.

First, the economic crisis means that business class travelers will be “trading down” to premium economy — whether that’s people flying for work whose travel policies are being tightened or upmarket leisure travelers who are feeling the pinch on their wallets but don’t fancy feeling it at their knees or elbows.

Second, frequent fliers will have miles to burn after a year of reduced traveling, and with those straitened travel policies that land business travelers in economy, we’ll likely see some of them upgrading themselves to the slightly better seats with their points. That’s alongside pent-up leisure travelers looking for a bit of a splurge, even in hard times.

Third comes the fact that, after more than a year of Covid-19, we’re just not psychologically used to being cheek-by-jowl with other people anymore. It’s going to feel very strange to think about doing that on a plane, so the extra space in premium economy will be welcome.

Emirates recently debuted its latest A380 with luxurious premium economy seats.

Emirates recently debuted its latest A380 with luxurious premium economy seats.

Courtesy Emirates

What is it?

But what is premium economy? Fundamentally, it’s a bigger seat, says Ben Orson, a designer responsible for many of the most successful seats of the past decade, and now managing director of Orson Associates.

“The most important part of what a premium economy seat offers the passenger is a significant upgrade in terms of comfort when compared to economy. Premium economy seating typically provides around 5 to 10 inches of additional leg room, a more generous recline with a leg rest and an enhanced entertainment experience with a much larger screen.”

Seats are also around two to three inches wider, and there are usually one to two seats fewer in each row: eight in a Boeing 777 or Airbus A380, for example, compared with 10 seats in most economy classes.

“This approach has paid off for airlines,” Orson says, “with both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic saying that, per square foot, premium economy is the most profitable part of the plane.”

Premium economy often comes with upgraded meal service.

Premium economy often comes with upgraded meal service.

Courtesy British Airways

Premium economy is found, metaphorically and on the actual aircraft, between the increasingly spacious and luxurious business classes and the increasingly less spacious and less luxurious economy classes.

Airbus calls this widening gap the “comfort canyon.”

Matt Round, chief creative officer at design studio Tangerine, explains that for airlines, it helps to fill this gap and that along with that larger seat comes some additional perks.

“Airlines tend to offer premium economy passengers access to more priority services such as free seat reservations, priority boarding and increased luggage allowance. The services that are offered vary according to the airline.”

Who flies it?

Passengers usually first approach premium economy from one of two directions: either upgrading from economy or downgrading from business.

“Pre-Covid-19, premium economy performed well for leisure passengers who wanted a slight treat or for cost-conscious large and small businesses,” Round explains. “On some routes, there was a tendency for passengers traveling on business to fly premium economy during the day and return on a fully flat bed in business class on the night flights.”

EVA Air's premium economy cabins were among the world's first.

EVA Air’s premium economy cabins were among the world’s first.

EVA Air

But, where business class seats have become more spacious and economy class seats have shrunk both in legroom and elbow room, how have premium economy seats changed since their introduction nearly 30 years ago aboard Virgin Atlantic and EVA Air?

“They haven’t, not really,” says Peter Tennent, director of design house Factorydesign.

“When we designed the first British Airways’ World Traveller Plus seat in 2000, the basis for the seat customization was an aging business class platform. These conventional, yet larger recliner seats were beginning to be superseded by enhanced business class offers, so there was a fairly obvious option to downgrade them from business to a reduced offer to sit between business and economy.”

Despite many advances in inflight entertainment and connectivity features such as on-demand inflight touchscreen entertainment, power sockets, WiFi internet and more, the basic seat hasn’t changed much, Tennent says.

“There have been many new premium economy seats, some bespoke, others derivatives of existing platforms, but all still following the same principle.”

What about the future?

Premium economy, says Martin Darbyshire, chief executive officer of Tangerine, is “a life saver for me as a business traveler who runs a privately owned company, and therefore cannot justify flying business class whenever I want.

“For a day flight, especially, premium economy is a comfortable way of flying with a reasonable quality of service. The smaller cabin is also a benefit, as it creates a more private space.”

Premium economy is also very popular with senior citizens on vacation, particularly because they can usually book early for lower fares.

More legroom is a key benefit of premium economy seats.

More legroom is a key benefit of premium economy seats.

Chris Rank/Delta Air Lines

Business travelers, on the other hand, can find it expensive at the last minute, Darbyshire notes. That said, these passengers — especially if they’re also frequent fliers — are among the first to be upgraded into business class if the premium economy cabin is getting full.

Overall, says Orson, “premium economy will continue to be attractive to the very tall, the elderly, and anybody else for whom economy class presents too much of a physical challenge.”

But, looking forward, he muses, “could it be that the approach which launched premium economy in the first instance — a considered selection of those aspects of business class that really matter to passengers today, such as a more technologically informed approach to comfort, greater privacy, enhanced connectivity or a more distanced boarding experience — might be applied again to create a new way of traveling, perfectly tailored to the ever-evolving needs of our passengers of the future?”

Whatever the future looks like, Tennent from Factorydesign notes, “Aviation is a battleground for differentiation. If one airline can offer — or claim to — something better, different or novel compared to their competitors, it provides a commercial advantage.”

Top photo from Philippine Airlines. John Walton is an international transportation and aviation journalist based in France, specializing in airlines, commercial aircraft and the passenger experience.

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