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.