In the month or so since I last posted, a lot has happened! I changed cities, moving from Nagoya on the south side of Japan’s Honshu island to idyllic Kanazawa on the north side. I also changed jobs, ditching the giant, factory-style children’s language school I was employed with for a small local one that caters to learners of all ages. And for the first time ever, I’m living alone, in my very own apartment, a lovely feeling that I still can’t get over. Expect posts on all this and more in the near future.
But before leaving Nagoya, I had the best possible send-off by visiting Hōnen Matsuri, the fertility festival, with some of the amazing friends I’d made during my time in Nagoya.
FYI: Depending on your workplace, this post may be NSFW. I will use multiple words for male anatomy and post photos of phallic items. Consider yourself warned.
I was out to dinner with Justin and Yo Ko, two of my friends from swing dancing, along with Justin’s roomate Matt. I forget what we were talking about, probably about my moving plans.
“On the 15th we’re going to a penis festival! Want to come?” Justin says.
A penis festival?!? How could I possibly say no to that!
A week later on the 15th, I convinced Imaan and Patrick, two of my Sharehouse roomies and besties, to join, and we met Justin and Yo Ko at the train station to take the train to Komaki, the smaller countryside town where the festival takes place. Matt brought his Japanese girlfriend as well, so we were a merry band of 7 revelers cavorting for the day.
Hōnen Matsuri is actually a harvest festival, and celebrates all manner of fertility and prosperity, but from what I saw these days has more to do with fertility of the human kind, and less of the vegetable. Such festivals take place all over Japan, but the one in Komaki is one of the more famous. Japan is really into festivals, and everyone knows you can’t have a festival without drinking, which we started doing almost as soon as we arrived!
You also can’t have a festival without food, and Japan has mastered the art of festival street food. In the areas surrounding the main shrine were lanes of stalls set up, selling all kinds of savory and sweet treats. Imaan and I came up with the brilliant idea to share everything between us so we could have a bit of everything, and throughout the day happily grazed on chicken and beef skewers; strange, long curly french fries; fried chicken; chewy squid legs in a sauce; and rice balls wrapped in tender slices of meat and grilled in soy sauce.
Naturally, the most popular food items at a penis festival are the various novelty foods made to look like penises. How could I or any of my friends resist the chocolate and sprinkle covered bananas? The bananas came with two marshmallows at the base, a thoughtful touch.
One thing I noticed while we were browsing and grazing was the atmosphere of the festival. True, there were some annoying drunk foreigners and funky Japanese folks in weird costumes, but mostly it was families hanging out together, with toddlers running around with chocolate-covered penis bananas in hand. It was almost wholesome in a way, yet still tongue-in-cheek. If we had the same festival in the US, I can’t imagine it working. It would be taken over by horribly wasted, immature morons and protested by conservatives.
Along with the light-hearted atmosphere though, there was still a sense of reverence in the air, which was apparent when we visited the shrine complex. There were hordes of people around, lining up to pray at the main shrine, buy lucky tokens, and to touch some special. . . balls. Around the corner from the shrine stand these two smooth, stone balls, and if you rub them and pray it can bring good luck for you and your prospects of having children. I don’t want children, so I declined from rubbing the balls, but my friends all took turns.
Around 2:30, it was time for the parade. By this time, we’d been happily imbibing Japanese wine-cooler type beverages for hours, and we were damn ready! We tipsily made our way to the street with the crowds and watched streams of priests and town officials pass, carrying banners with giant penises emblazoned on them and carved wooden statues, while passing out buckets of free sake. We were standing next to an old Japanese man who didn’t speak much English, but was keen to learn, and just as keen to supply us with sake.
“What’s that, English?” He pointed at the banner.
“Penis” we told him. “It’s called a penis.”
“Pee-nus! Pee-nus!” He proclaimed, before laughing like a crazy person. We taught him more words.
“Cock-u! Big cock-u! I like big cock-u!” More hilarity and laughter, from him, from us, and from the Japanese couple next to us who clearly understood English.
“Everybody likes big cock” I replied, to even more laughter.
He was right though: coming down the street was the big cock, the star of the show, “a 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus” (thank you for those stats, Wikipedia), carried by a dozen white-robed, giggling, probably drunk, Shinto priests. You could tell this was the highlight of their year, and at intervals they would stop and rest, or change out with other priests. There was a seemingly endless supply of priests that day!
The crowds moved from the street to the shrine complex to watch the giant phallus being inserted (ha!) into the shrine, it’s home for the coming year. Next year, the parade will be reversed, and it will be carried back down the street to the other shrine. And the cycle repeats.
But there was still one more event in store for us. Close to 4:00, we moved to an area outside the shrine yard, where a giant scaffolding had been erected. The crowd arranged themselves in front of this scaffolding and waited. At 4:00 the priests climbed on top of the scaffolding and lined up. Over a loudspeaker, an announcement was made in Japanese, something to the effect of “remove your glasses, put away your cameras, if you get hurt it’s not our fault, etc”. Then, chanting, the priests picked up hard balls of mochi and pelted them at the waiting crowd! Catching a mochi ball means good luck for your baby-making future, but you were far more likely to get hit with one – and they hurt too, Imaan took one to the head and saw black for a moment! It was kind of like being in a mosh pit: a bit scary, but good fun.
We had a final browse of the food stalls, another Kirin “Strong” flavored alcoholic beverage, and with the fading light and cooling air decided to take the party back to Justin and Matt’s place to hang out. It had been a day filled with food, booze, immaturity, reverence, and amazing good friends. Pretty much the best day ever, and one of my favorite days in Japan so far!