Where: Tagata shrine, Komaki, Aichi Prefecture 45 minutes North of Nagoya
When: March 15th
What’s it about: Praying for a good harvest, celebrating birth and life. And running wild with a big cock.
Joining in: FREE. Touch the tip of a 24 inch phallus for a healthy baby. Rice-cake catching and free sake drinking.
Where It’s At
The Japanese festival experience exemplifies beautifully the inevitable flip side of a conservative culture. Top of the list must be the Hounen Matsuri (pronounced “hoe-nen matt-sury”)”bountiful year” festival, otherwise known as the “fertility festival”.
What Happens at the Hounen Matsuri Festival?
The festival is deeply rooted in Japanese folklore. It began as an appeal to the gods for a fruitful harvest. March 15th marks the beginning of spring, a time of rebirth and growth.
On this day, locals dressed in Buddhist robes carry floats through the centre of town praying for a good harvest and childbirth. The main float consists of a two and a half metre wooden phallus, which is carried from one shrine to another. In the Shinto belief, newly made objects flow with life, thus a new phallus is carved every year from a Japanese cypress tree. It is a gift to the female deity of agricultural fertility, Tamahime-no-mikoyo. The float is carried by men all aged 42. This age is considered unlucky for men, a superstition rooted in Chinese culture. Carrying the gift to the agricultural deity is believed to consecrate the men of that hapless age.
Walking the Dog
The parade begins at 2pm, led by a Shinto priest who purifies the path to the shrine with salt. This is also done to ward off evil spirits. Men follow carrying banners depicting the anatomical rudiments of fertility. Local dignitaries dressed in golden sashes once worn by Buddhist priests follow the banners.
Touching the Phalus
Visitors are encouraged to take part in the festival and this can be done by drinking free sake, following the parade or by touching one of several small wooden phalli in the hope for healthy babies.
Fill of the Tuck
No Japanese festival would be complete without lining the quiet streets with yatai, or foodstalls. There are plenty of opportunities to sample 500 yen ($4) takoyaki (octopus grilled in batter) and 300 yen ($2.50) yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick) among other festival delights. At this particular festival, there are chances to buy theme-shaped chocolates as souvenirs. Use your imagination!
Rice Cake Throw
To round the day off there is a Mochi Nage, or rice-cake throw, which – like the entire festival – has to be seen to be believed. Behind the shrine a square crams with people waiting to catch flying balls of tasteless glutinous rice. Catching a ball of mochi guarantees good luck and prosperity for the coming year. It is also the closest the Japanese and their visitors come to taking part in a full-scale riot without arrest.
Local people throw the homemade mochi into the crowd from their roofs. Fighting for a cake alongside the elderly is not uncommon. A must see if not a must do.
Float carried by men, all aged 42 (an unlucky number)
How to Get There
Komaki is both easy and cheap to get to from Nagoya. From Shin Nagoya station (beside JR Nagoya station) take the Meitestu Inuyama line to Inuyama station (30 minutes). At Inuyama station, change to the Komaki line (platform 3) and catch any train south. Tagata Jingu Mae is the third station. Come out of the station and walk south (left) down the main road. On March 15th, however, it will just be a matter of following the crowd.
The local tourist board
Komkai is a small city. If looking for accommodation it might be worthwhile staying in Inuyama or Nagoya, both being within easy reach of Komaki.
Inuyama International Youth Hostel(+81 (0)568-61-1111), a thirty minute walk East of Inuyama Yuen station. A comfortable single costs 3,500 yen (about £30).
Japanese-style Ryokan rooms at The Ryokan Meiryu, Inuyama (+81 (0)52-331-8686) cost 5,200 yen (£26)/8,200 yen (£41) for singles/doubles.
The official website of the Hounen Matsuri festival
For information, call the shrine on 0081 (0) 568-76-2906.
Photography and text by Sheila Daly