The Honen-Sai festival is celebrated in Japan to ensure a plentiful harvest for each year. I first encountered this wooden phallus a few months ago in a temple at Koh Samui, which is venerated by local members of this community as a magical object, although it is only a symbolic image evoking themes of fertility. This tradition of replacing the old wooden phallus with a new one is celebrated every 15th of March here at the Tagata Shrine, as well as all over Japan, since the early part of 1930’s. Tagata Shrine itself is believed to date as far back as 1,500 years ago.
The legend of the Honen-sai is believed to have survived a widespread ritual to ensure agricultural and other forms of regeneration, including those of individuals searching for spouses, being cured from a disease or wishing for a child. This ancient ritual is related to the fertility ritual similar to those known worldwide especially those from India and ancient Dionysian processions of rural Greece. Although some fanatics worshipped the phallus itself, the main idea behind this festival is that of fertility – agricultural or otherwise.
When I came to Nagoya about a month ago I couldn’t believe my luck – Honen Matsuri is celebrated nearby at Tagata Jinja! When I first met this wooden phallus I never imagined I would experience the actual festival to celebrate its importance to this society. The procession itself was not that long, about a mile, from either a Shimmei or Kumano shrine and takes about a couple of hours to get to the Tagata Shrine.
The guide I read about the festival said that a Herald scattered salt on either side of the pathway to ritually clean it for the arrival of the procession. But this herald was giving out salt to viewers for the upcoming swig of Sake!
These phallus-bearing women are part of the custom of Yakudoshi, which said that traditionally women aged 36 lived an unlucky year. The twelve men carrying the palanquin are aged 42, also believed to be a time in a man’s life to be extremely inauspicious and needed protection – therefore the men and women partaking in the carrying of these phalli would merit from the magical powers by carrying the phallus itself.
In the olden days at the end of the procession the Sakaki tree was ripped apart by people wanting a piece of the sacred amulets, branches or even leaves as a token of the magical powers to take home and bury in their properties near the water gate or the rice seedling nursery to ensure fertility and prevent disaster. Now, as you can imagine, when you combine magical powers and crowds it became rowdy – people were chopping the branches off with knives. So 30 years ago this part of the procession was prohibited.
Tradition has it that the women held a higher status in the society. When they were married they were not required to leave their household to join their husbands in their marital homes. Instead of the couple living together the husbands visited their wives. The Tagata Jinja is believed to be the spot where the, now deity, Tamahime lived. Takeinadane was a local prince espoused to Tamahime who, unfortunately lived a short life, leaving his wife with two children and father-in-law to look after the surrounding areas.
The wooden phallus is carved from a single Japanese cypress tree as they believe that newly made objects are thought to possess more purity and vitality. Every year a new phallus is carved, purified in a solemn ritual, carved by a master craftsman using traditional tools and wearing ritually-pure clothing. The previous year’s wooden phallus is sold to private homes or businesses wherein they will be placed in their personal altar and celebrated with personal rituals. Imagine coming home to a 13-foot wooden phallus!
The festival was a mixture of anticipation and sake-reeking crowd. I was quite excited about this one as it was my first festival, of the hundreds, celebrated in Japan. It showed me how traditional this community is. I am looking forward to more Japanese celebrations of life! Here are other images during the festival.
Nagoya City to be specific. We have arrived to our new country of posting. It is very Japanese! Everything is written in Kanji among other types of Japanese writing. Luckily enough some directions such as subways, major road names are also written with its Romaji conversion. I feel it is very essential to learn, at least the conversational level, to get yourself understood (thanks to iPhone’s translation app) otherwise it’s difficult. Nagoya City is Japan’s fourth largest city and an industrial centre. It is also the capital of Aichi Prefecture.
On the positive note, oh yes there is a positive side and lots of it! The Japanese people are very friendly and helpful. The city is clean and the food…yummy! When I walked around to explore the culinary scene, I felt embarrassed with my limited knowledge of the Japanese cuisine. My Japanese food experience was limited to sushi, sashimi, shabu-shabu, gyoza and tempura. They use so much fresh ingredients in their cooking, others I thought to have been decorative, here they use almost everything. When you are hungry you will be spoilt for choice from the hole-in-the-wall noodle stops, vending machines, bento boxes as well as specialty restaurants. It’s ideal to have someone introduce you to the flavours of Japan and the (very) traditional Japanese meal, otherwise you would feel disheartened, as we have been, on one occasion when the waiter refused to serve us as we did not speak the lingo.
As an introduction to our experience in Japan here are some snaps from our neighbourhood.
This is our backyard, the science museum (also known as the Brother Earth Planetarium) and the art museum are within the Shirakawa Park. It’s a very spacious park frequented by school children and young couples.
A couple of blocks from where we live is the shopping district of central Nagoya – Sakae. All around the area are old street cafes and restaurants rubbing elbows with the more upmarket malls.
I cannot get enough of the colourful restaurants, they are so beautiful! Here are a few of them.
We have also moved into our new apartment recently. As I mentioned above, everything being in Japanese, we had a couple of hours’ orientation around our new place (and how everything worked) from the mail box(es) to the colour-coded rubbish system. Our real estate agent have been kind enough to label everything in english to minimise confusion and accidentally burning the place down!
Travelling around Nagoya is not that hard. The subway system is easy and organised, although I haven’t dared the bus system. Going interstate is also speedy, especially with the bullet trains – 50 minutes to Osaka or 1 hour and 40 minutes from Tokyo.
There is so much to know about Japan and I will continue to enjoy my experiences here in our new country of residence.
Once again the sun sets in a different part of the world…this time in Nagoya City, Japan.
And the city wakes up with its neon lights.