It’s around 2 pm, the skies are slightly overcast and the weather a bit chilled here in some anonymous corner of the Nagoya countryside. I’m packed Tokyo-AM-train tight with a crowd of locals and foreigners alike, staring intensely at a traffic-less street and a faceless line of Japanese homes and udon restaurants. We’re all waiting for a giant, 600 pound wooden penis to be carried before our eyes.
It was the promise of such phallic adventures that lured me to the Honen Matsuri here at this remote stop on a train line most Nagoya-ites have never heard of. ‘Honen Matsuri‘ apparently means something like ‘bountiful harvest festival’ in Japanese, but we all know that ‘Penis Festival’ suits our purposes just fine. The name fits quite a bit better, too. The only hint of harvest at this festival comes from the vague connection between human fertility and soil fertility. Penis is the main attraction and, like penises everywhere in the world, here at the Honen Matsuri they come in all shapes and sizes.
Only, unlike in the real world, here they are blown up to comic proportions in grotesque, bulgy-vein detail.
The action starts right outside the train stop, where vendors hawk their penis-and-vagina-themed wares. Apparently, the most prestigious place to vend is right outside the station, where year after year a few old men sell beautifully rendered woodcuts and paintings of sickly detailed penises that, if not for the fact that they depict genitals, are drawn with enough talent to find a place on a Marvel comics cover.
One of the more disorienting aspects of this trip is the fact that, after this nightmare display, one strolls for about 15 minutes through a perfectly average sleepy Japanese town before arriving at the site of the Penis Festival, Tagata Jinja.
Here I am assaulted by more phallic visuals. The dubiously talented ‘artists’ from the station are replaced by food vendors selling any long, cylindrical eats imaginable. I go for the obvious pick: the chocolate covered penis banana, which is delicious and really gets you into the fertility spirit. For men, munching on this accurate genital likeness is a bit discomforting, but it probably allows women of all walks of life to entertain certain revenge fantasies.
I fight the crowd, which consists of around a third foreigners. The other two thirds are elderly Japanese who, astonishingly, are more surprised by the number of gaijin than by the fact that they are surrounded by people selling penis-lollipops, and are standing in a temple with permanent stone genital monuments cropping out of the ground like giant mushrooms.
I find myself standing in a very long line, for no other reason than that long lines usually lead to something interesting, when I am confronted by a jolly Japanese penis-Santa Claus of sorts. He carries a bag of goodies over his shoulder, most of which are phallus sculptures of different sizes and colors. He’s tickled pink by the number of foreigners who are here to witness his strange side show. I can’t help but pose for a few photos with him. After all, this is my shot at Facebook profile photo of the year.
The line leads to what is probably the second most significant aspect of the Penis Festival, aside from the giant penis parade that will pass through in just a short while. An artistic and possibly quite old replica of a penis built into the temple, with two giant golden balls jutting from the stone base. The balls, as clever readers might surmise, are to be rubbed for good luck. Sorry guys, but this doesn’t work on normal size testicles. I assume they have to be giant and golden, or at least blessed by a priest to bring luck.
After I get my luck and virility for the year (which hasn’t worn off yet, and I’m thinking about seeing a doctor), I have just enough time to grab a few tall boys at the adjacent grocer before the penis parade bears down on us.
It’s a happy affair and I am part dismayed, part relieved that the Japanese participating, dressed in traditional clothes and demon masks, have a hard time keeping straight faces, too. Women carry wooden phalluses about the size of a man’s arm, cradling them like babies and allowing men, women, and children to rub the heads for good luck. Even the town politicians get in on the action, spouting campaign slogans and well-wishes before the star of the show appears: that gigantic, red, 600 pound phallus that requires at least 8 men to bear the weight.
The Penis is preceded by priests rubbing beads and chanting, and sits atop a sort of mobile temple. It bobs and sways realistically while the Penis Bearers struggle under its massive weight. There are a few awkward moments when the laughter stops and the crowd is poised to flee, as the bearers adjust grip, buckle-kneed and waddling, the penis threatening to run out of control, dip into the crowd and crush us all in the world’s most bizarre news headline.
After The Penis has lumbered past, more ceremoniously dressed paraders march by, offering free sake that shouldn’t be missed. One can’t help but be a little suspicious of the cloudy and milky white Nigorizake‘s origins.
When the parade is over there’s plenty of time to shop around for omiyage. My recommendation is the golden penis keitai strap that is sure to be a conversation piece on the morning train. If you still feel like lingering after all the excitement, there’s countless penis monuments to make offerings to, and the grocer next door has premium milk-crate seating so you can have a beer or sake and chat with the locals about the bizarreness you’ve just witnessed.
The Honen Matsuri is a bit of a holy grail for ex-pats, whispered about enviously amongst those that haven’t been. Among many, it’s a yearly ritual, and I’m told that CNN and other national news agencies frequently cover it, so you might have a chance to wave to mom and dad back at home.
The Honen Matsuri Takes place on March 15th annually
Getting There: Grab the Meijo line to Heian-Dori, then switch to Kami-iida and get off at Tagata Jinja Mae.
More info HERE