More respectfully known as the ‘Japanese Fertility Festival’, but let’s not beat around the bush here, this is a bizarre matsuri that is full of phallic shaped sweets, giant wooden penises and rice cakes as hard as canon balls.
So if you are easily offended, under the legal age to view this sort of stuff or don’t want to suffer my awful puns, you would be well advised to steer clear. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Okay, with that out the way, let’s get stuck into quite possibly the most exciting Japanese festival you could possibly plunge yourself into – the Penis Festival! Video of the day included at the end of this post!
Bountiful Shrines Abound
Fertility Festivals are aplenty in Japan, and come in all shapes and forms, both graphic and subtle. I attended the Bonden Matsuri some time ago as a study abroad student at Akita International University which involved men running a huge phallic structure into the mouth a local shrine. No prizes for guessing the symbolism in that one.
But this time it was the real deal. No suggestions or subtle hints at sex. There were more than a few carved wooden penises as well as huge flags bearing the proud symbol, take-home-for-mum souvenir sweets and of course, abundant Japanese festival food, all tastefully re-styled to fit the theme of the festival.
The particular shrine I visited is called Tagata jinja and is in a small town North of Nagoya known as Komaki-shi (田縣神社、小牧市、愛知県). Held every year on the 15th of March, this Hounensai (豊年祭) is a fertility festival held to pray for a fruitful harvest, meant both in respect to the farming industry and also to families or couples wishing for a successful conception – a safe ‘harvest’ of children, if you will.
Until recently, Komaki-shi was a farming area, and the festival has its roots in the Shinto shrine’s some 1500 years of history. The Kami (God) enshrined there embodies fertility and as such is a feminine deity. Just as objects shaped like the male genitalia are housed in Tagata shrine, in nearby Ogata shrine (大縣神社), there are objects in the shape of the female genitalia. For this reason, we are asked to remember the real meaning behind all the sexual imagery. As the Yamasa Homepage expertly puts it:
It is important to understand that the worship is not of the phalli, but instead a worship of the earth, of the power that nature has through renewal and regeneration. It is this context that provides the phallus with its significance.
In an agricultural community, the sacred feminine [deity] was worshipped, and the rituals that have survived to this day at the Tagata shrine were celebrations of this, conducted in order to ensure bountiful agricultural harvests, regeneration and renewal as well as human birth. In this way the Hounen matsuri is similar to other fertility rituals around the world. Hounen means bountiful year. The festival is held March 15th because spring is the time of regeneration where seeds sprout and dormant trees and plants that seem to be dead come back to life.
Fun with Phalli
Nowadays though, the huge swell of visitors on March 15th – many of whom are foreign nationals – come to break out of the conservative bounds of daily life and enjoy the playful atmosphere. I don’t think there are many other places or times that you could get away with sucking on a penis-shaped lollipop or cheering on the procession of a 2.5 metre wooden phallus.
Even the locals who help out at the event are into the spirit of things and for a few hours, everybody seems to forget the social taboos associated with such blatant sexual imagery, revelling in freedom by drinking sake (Japanese rice wine) and eating the various snack foods available from the huge number of yatai (foodstalls). Small penis-shaped keyrings are on sale, charms for protection or the safe delivery of a new child and even the chocolate-covered bananas often seen at Japanese festivals have been re-born with a new suggestive shape. (For the curious among you, here’s a collection of 10 souvenirs from a Japanese penis festival).
The main procession starts around 2pm where a giant wooden penis carved anew each year from a cypress tree is paraded from one shrine to another. It weighs around 400 kilograms and requires around 60 men working in smaller teams to deliver it on its journey, occasionally stopping to spin the huge member around. Apparently the phallus used to be much smaller, but over the years it has grown in size, seemingly trying to compensate for it being ‘hidden’ within a portable shrine.
Also a lesser-known fact, but traditionally the men and women most involved carrying the phalli are usually of ages deemed to be unlucky in Japan. The women carrying the sizeable wooden penises are 36 years old and the men are 42 (4 and 2 combine to create ‘shi-ni’ – a homophone for ‘to die’). The unlucky years (yakudoshi – 厄年) seem to vary according to tradition though, with the most typical yakudoshi for women being 33 (‘san-zan’ – meaning ‘hard’ or ‘disasterous’).
After the main parade, there is a riceball throwing event, where locals from the city hurl rock-hard cricket ball-sized mochi down into the crowds. It’s pretty dangerous and I think I saved one older Japanese guy from a faceful of pain at one point, stopping a speeding clod inches before his eyes. After being inside that rabble, I was quite glad of the several ambulances waiting by the gates to the shrine…
The day closed up with a heavy rain shower, which had thankfully held off right until the final mochi mosh-pit, and the giant penis was laid to rest inside the main shrine. Guests busied themselves buying a last few penis and vagina-shaped sweets and headed back for the nearest train station. From now the shrine will be relatively quiet and cater mostly for those coming to wish for a successful pregnancy, but you can be sure the fun will begin once again when a new spring approaches.
Well then, here’s all that video footage I’ve been editing. Enjoy!