A 22-year-old firefighter won the annual "Lucky Man" footrace held early Thursday at a major Shinto shrine in western Japan.

As soon as the gates of Nishinomiya Shrine swung open at 6 a.m., Yuki Yamamoto from Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, dashed ahead of the pack to the main hall some 230 meters away, beating the 107 other lottery-selected competitors in the first group to race. Altogether, some 5,000 people took part in the traditional race.

"I'm very happy," declared Yamamoto, who said the win made him look back ruefully on an inter-high school pole-vault championship that he missed due to injuries.

With his hometown of Fukuyama affected by the torrential rain last summer that caused massive floods and mudslides, Yamamoto said he hopes the win "can brighten people up, even just a little bit."

The shrine in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, dedicated to the Ebisu god of business prosperity, has been holding the race for centuries and anoints the first three runners to arrive at the main hall as the lucky men of the year.

(Yuki Yamamoto, a 22-year-old firefighter, celebrates after winning an annual "lucky man" footrace at Nishinomiya Shrine.)

Yuki Itami, a 30-year-old local comedian, was second, and third was Katsuya Tamaki, 23, from Kakogawa, also in Hyogo Prefecture.

This year's event was special in that a woman took part for the first time as a gatekeeper, a key role with responsibility for holding the gates shut until the start of the race.

Miyuki Abe, 36, from Iwate Prefecture, assumed the role along with several other men. Abe has twice won the title of "Lucky Woman" in a separate footrace held as part of a tsunami evacuation drill in Kamaishi, northeastern Japan.

Abe said, "I want to bring home the power of Lucky Man to the Tohoku region," which was hit by a major earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear accident in 2011.