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If you think that the Japanese are always reserved, civil and polite, think again. All over the country, in the mountains and by the sea, and at various seasons of the year, the Japanese get in touch with their tribal self and unleash their raw passion for phalluses, hairy beasts, riding logs and giant fish fights at various matsuri, or festivals. Here is a rundown of some of the weirdest festivals in Japan that will make you go “What?”, “Why?” and “Where can I go to see that” (or not)!
1. The Golden Penis Festival (Kanamara Matsuri)
Literally meaning the “Golden Penis Festival” (“kana” referring to gold and “mara” being the colloquial term for phallus), this Shinto festival has aroused the interest of the international media for its unabashed worship and celebration of the penis.
For two hours on the first Sunday of April every year, the residents of Kawasaki City in Kanagawa Prefecture take to the street to parade three giant phalluses of various shapes, sizes and colors around the street, chanting, “Giant penis! Golden penis!”
This festival is said to hark back to the 1600s as a celebration of virility, fertility and the male organ. The current shrine that holds the festival, the Kanayama Shrine, belongs to the sect that worships the Phallus God. Various phallic-shaped statues can be seen scattered throughout the shrine grounds, which are believed to ward off illness and ensure a safe childbirth.
On the big day, the shrine is crowded with eager spectators, who have spread out picnic sheets as if it’s cherry blossom season. All kinds of phallic paraphernalia can be bought at street stalls, such as penises carved from radishes, and sporting tourists can straddle a giant wooden dick that looks like a canon aimed to shoot. The shrine itself has various interesting tongue-in-cheek drawings, which I shall leave to your imagination.
The festival climax involves hoisting around town three mobile shrines, each erected with a phallus–one brown one carved of wood, a black one made of steel and an eye-catching pink one made of plaster. The last one is called the “Elizabeth Shrine” and is carried by the local transvestites for an all-inclusive festival.
After the dicks are rowdily paraded around the streets with much heaving and shoving, they are put back to rest at the Shrine, where festivities such as sake drinking bouts and karaoke competitions go on in zest.
Every six years at Suwa City in Nagano Prefecture, virile young men straddle a huge fir tree log and ride it down a mountain. This six-year itch for thrill and danger harks back 1,200 years and does actually serve a purpose–to symbolically renew the four shrine buildings at the Suwa Grand Shrine. The event involves felling sixteen fir trees and dragging them to the shrine. The process of preparing them to be used as sacred pillars for the shrine includes riding the 17 to 19 meter long and meter-wide logs down the mountain from which they are felled. However, it is common for lives to be lost in this erection process, and just this year, one man died as he fell from a log while it was being raised at the shrine.
Hence, the Onbashira Festival is touted as the most dangerous festival in Japan for consistently causing either injury or death amongst its participants, which can tally up to 3,000 people as it spans over a few months. The festival involves two stages, Yamadashi and Satobiki. Yamadashi is when the fir trees are felled, ridden down the mountain and lugged over rivers and streets before being placed at the shrine. The latter is when the pillars are actually erected at each shrine, involving a colourful parade march and more tree trunk riders as the log is pulled up into place.
What’s more, each stage is celebrated twice–once each for the Upper Shrine and the Lower Shrine. The Suwa Grand Shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and believed to house the god of bravery and valor. The festival will next be held in 2022.
3. The Namahage Festival
It’s not easy growing up as a child in Akita Prefecture in the North East of Japan. While in the West, Santa Claus’ arrival in town is brings about a Pavlov reaction of good behavior in children, in Oga–a seaside town with a rugged coast and boasting one of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises in Japan–fearsome ogres prowl the streets come New Year’s Eve. Wielding chopping knives, they shout menacingly, “Are there any crying children? Are there any lazy bums? Are there any disobedient kids? Any daughter/son-in-laws who can’t wake up in the morning? Garrr!”
The role of these Namahage–the naming of which has its roots in “chasing away sloth”–is played by young men of the village, who don ferocious horned masks, straw raincoats and waistbands, which are a sacred symbol.The Namahage ambush houses in the dark of the night, stomping loudly on the tatami mats. Here, the head of the house receives them with their by now shivering and crying babies and children, while trying to appease the ogre with offerings of sake and rice cakes.
The parents can inform the Namahage troupe in advance of any particular bad habit they want purged from their children, and the Namahage will tailor their threatening growls accordingly. During the actual ambush, the head of the house plays along with the act and denies the existence of any misbehavior of their wards to protect their young lives. Appeased, the Namahage leave the household, but threaten to return at the clap of hands, three times to unleash their wrath on the offending human being. At the end of their rounds, they do a ritual dance around a fire to bless the village with good health and fortune in the New Year.
This “trick or treat” event on steroids comes from the belief that a deity visits households in the village in the New Year, granting health and good fortune. The sight of these hairy, straw-covered beasts let loose upon unsuspecting children is said to be quite terrifying, even for adults. This festival has been recognized as an Important National Intangible Cultural Asset since 1978.
4. The Sea Bream Festival (Toyohama Tai Matsuri)
This could be Japan’s fishiest festival, as giant papier mache sea bream–plastered on a bamboo frame about 18 meters long and six meters high–are paraded around the streets. Clashing against each other in a cloud of sand on the beach, the fish finally take to sea, and are lit up like lanterns.
These fierce-looking and surprisingly sturdy fish are made every year by the five local regions of Toyohama, a fishing port town located 50 kilometers south of Nagoya City on the Chita Peninsular. Each region is in charge of making one of the five sea breams. This festival is representative of the town. Some 60 men carry the fish around the streets, sand and into the sea, while smaller versions of the fish are carried by a smaller troupe of children.
Held over a weekend in July, the fish are paraded around town before heading to the local shrine, where the festival first originated in the late 19th century.
The fish are bashed through the torii (shrine gates) and clashed against each other on the sand, before finally setting sail into the ocean. There, they are lit up like giant lanterns while fireworks are set off in the sea. The festival is said to have originated when a local shipwright made a paper mache mouse made and offered it to a festival at the local shrine. The mouse then evolved into the auspicious sea bream as a festival for safe and abundant fishing.
5. The Enrei Ohno Standing Memorial Festival (Enrei Ohno Dachi Kinen Sai)
Also known as, undoubtedly, the shortest festival in Japan, this ceremony lasts a mere 20 seconds and involves a single command, “At attention, bow”. After a uniform bow by a row of men in black suits, the festival is declared over. This rite takes place twice every year in June and October at the border of Okutani City and Shiojiri City in Nagano Prefecture to commemorate a memorial plaque granted by the Meiji Emperor in 1916.
The cities take turns to perform the June and October rites. The plaque is situated at a popular vantage point from which Mount Fuji and peaks from the Southern and Northern Alps can be seen on a clear day.