The great phallic procession

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spring is edging ever closer and with it come the first festivals of the planting season. In old Japan, fertility of the soil for the harvest was inextricably linked to the fertility of the people. Speaking more bluntly, this meant that celebrations of sex and the union of man and woman were commonplace among Shinto ritual. Western ideas eradicated a great deal of the old festivities, but a few have managed to survive the more puritanical influences. And, as a matter of fact, a couple of the most famous examples lie just to the north of Nagoya.

The bland rural town of Komaki has little apparent function other than to be a detached dormitory suburb of sorts for its bigger neighbor. Rolling through the place on the train, one would never expect such a place to be home to one of the region's greatest festivals. On the northern fringes of town sit a pair of old Shinto shrines called Ogata-jinja and Tagata-jinja. The two house the opposing female and male kami of Tamehime-no-mikoto and Mitoshi-no-kami respectively, whose joining symbolizes the arrival of a new growing season. Each shrine hosts a big festival every year in the middle of March, with the primary purpose of commemorating the union of these two spirits.

Ogata-jinja's Hime-no-miya Grand Festival took place on Sunday. Unfortunately, I had to work an extra shift down in Toyota, so I was forced to give it a miss. I made sure that I wouldn't have to do so for the other one, however. In fact, I specifically asked for the day off several weeks ahead of time, ensuring that I could take in the festivities (so long as the weather held up). Tagata-jinja's Hōnen Matsuri is the more famous of the two by far anyways, so I suppose it could be said I was prioritizing right. A group of my students actually invited me to go out to Kagawa-ken today as well, which would be a tempting proposition on any other day. I've never yet been to Shikoku, but this is something I've been wanting to hit for years. A long daytrip out someplace for the sake of eating sanuki udon will have to play second fiddle.

Despite Komaki's rather unhip "inaka" status, I soon discovered that I was hardly the only gaijin aware of the matsuri. The train ride up wasn't exactly packed, but by the time I'd gotten off and wandered down to the shrine, it was clear that word had gotten out. But what can you expect of a festival whose centerpiece is a gigantic wooden penis? This sole "feature" has spawned a mini-industry locally, with all sorts of phallic objects on sale. Chocolate-covered penis-bananas, metal charms with phalluses that spring from limp to erect with the pull of a chain, ceramic phalluses, candy phalluses, rubber nose phalluses (eh??!). . . . .you name it. All this has generated a lot of attention locally and people come from all over the place just to see this bizarre event.

Including quite a few of my fellow teachers! Only about ten minutes after arriving, I ran into several co-workers (who I ended up spending the rest of the day with). Not long after that, another friend from work showed up to join us. In the next hour or two, I spotted at least four other people from the company. It wasn't a tremendous surprise to hear that headquarters was scrambling to find substitutes for all the teachers that either called in sick or prearranged for the day off. Certainly a funny thing in itself, but I couldn't help wondering if we were going to run into some of the people from personnel at the festival as well!

Matsuri often seem like just another good excuse for Japanese old men to get drunk and raucous, and this was definitely no exception. Several of them came up and tried to practice their English with us, with one in particular deciding to yammer on about North Korea, the Beatles and world peace to me for a while. Yatai were simply everywhere, with typically inflated prices, but unquestionably tempting food. Mayu had made a couple onigiri for me before heading to work today, but it was difficult for me not to opt for some fresh takoyaki or yakisoba instead. By a strange stroke of fortune, there was also a supermarket just adjacent to the shrine, which was doing a roaring trade in beer (yet amazingly never running out of stock!). That meant the group of us had plenty of opportunity to get sloppily intoxicated while taking in the celebrations.

The day's events actually began at 10am, with the bringing of rice cakes to the shrine by procession. Since I didn't get in until a bit after noon, everything was at somewhat of a lull until the big procession started at 2:00. Once I'd munched the rice balls and had some grilled squid and gohei-mochi for posterity, we made our way towards the hill to the east. It's from this point that they start carting down the mikoshi and great Owasegata - the giant wooden phallus meant to be an offering to the main hall of Tagata-jinja. After making our way across the bridge, we caught up to the rest of the crowd about a third of the way up the slope. Our timing turned out to be perfect, as we arrived right when the first of the main attendants were walking past. Surprisingly, the crowd was not so massive as to prevent us from getting a good view, and my new camera's flexible viewscreen meant I could snap pics from all sorts of angles.

The procession actually went by rather quickly, so it was only a matter of minutes before the monster phallus got down to where we were. Incredibly, the twelve men carrying it were able to swing it around in circles over and over without laying out any passersby. It went down the bend towards the bridge in no time flat though, so we quickly followed down a side street to reconnect with it. From there, everything got jammed up at the railroad tracks before the bridge, which really worked out perfectly. The atmosphere was positively riotous, with the crowd filled with noisy foreigners, drunken old men and stunned young Japanese women. Everyone was constantly darting back and forth in an attempt to take good pictures of the procession without getting knocked over in its wake. It got difficult to avoid being carried along with it as the crowd kept getting shoved back to allow room for the participants.

On top of all this, women attendants were continuously passing out sake freely to the spectators, only adding more fuel to the drunken chaos. Everywhere I'd look, there'd be some bewildered spectator clasping three or four empty paper cups. Several foreigners would climb into the parade and put their arms around the participants, shouting away in sloppy Japanese. After the giant phallus arrived once again, people had the added excitement of trying to dodge the swinging frenzy of it going about in circles. From out of nowhere, an old man jumped out of the procession with a smaller wooden phallus, thrusting it into the arms of oblivious female spectators. A friend of mine from work just about fell over laughing when she found it suddenly cradled within her arms. Finally by about 2:45, the Owasegata pushed across the tracks and the lot of us went stumbling back towards the main street of town.

The group of us hung around watching the procession continue down the street to Tagata-jinja for a while. Once we could no longer stand our bladders being full to the brim from all the beer and sake, we strode on back to join the line to the toilets at the supermarket. Stopping afterwards to pick up a little more festival food at the yatai, we then managed to catch the last of the ceremonial introduction of the phallus into the main hall. After a bit of a humorous peek around a perverse collection of omiyage at a makeshift souvenir stall, we then whiled the time away ahead of the last event.

The grand finale to the Hōnen Matsuri is a rice-cake throwing ritual, taking place in the main courtyard of the shrine. Scaffolding had been assembled along the edge of one corner, with pile after pile of rounded mochi set on top of it. With the event scheduled to begin at 4pm, we waddled over about five or ten minutes ahead of time to get a good place. Perhaps to make the uninitiated aware of the potential hazards of flying balls of pounded rice, they ran a warning announcement several times. It's probably logical that if you're elderly, a little kid, or someone with glasses, you need to be careful in any event where objects are flying through the air in quick succession. Even so, it didn't seem to deter people (in fact, the kids and old ladies were probably the most intent on catching something!).

Once it all began, people were leaping all over each other to snag one out of the air. Maybe it should have been already obvious, but those things hurt like hell if you don't catch them right! One smacked my friend on the thumb as he tried to grab it, which left him shaking his hand for a bit. I did manage to catch a couple though and probably could have gotten more had it not been for the speedy old woman scrambling to pick up the ones that dropped to the ground. I decided only to keep one though, giving the other to a little girl that didn't get a chance to get any herself.

With that, the festival came to an end and we wandered on back to the train station. For something so incredibly popular and packed out, it was amazing how quickly the crowd dissipated. I made sure to pick up a little candy "souvenir" for Mayu on the way out though; she likewise responded with a loud "ya da!" ("yikes!") when I gave it to her back home. I must say it's been one of the more interesting days I've spent in Japan. Hopefully someday I'll be able to catch the twin festival at Ogata-jinja. It would be intriguing to see how the female perspective differs.
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