Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Nagoya Fertility Festival: Bananas, sake and hair... oh my!

Please note: This post is rated PG-13... and maybe even R, depending on how sheltered you are. So, please keep this in mind as you progress through this post about a Japanese cultural tradition: the Nagoya Fertility Festival and Parade.

Yes, as you may have heard, there is an annual penis parade in Japan. Actually, there are several of them, in different cities, but the one the MCAS Iwakuni tour company does goes to is the Tagata Shrine in Nagoya, about 7 hours away from Iwakuni. And the March 15 festival is not simply a 6-foot long phallus marching through the streets, although that would be worth seeing. Or, maybe not, because I have encountered some 6-foot tall walking human "phalluses" I hope to never have to deal with again.

In this case, the festival is a centuries-old Shinto tradition to celebrate and pray for fertility. And, obviously, when talking about human fertility, the penis is an integral part of that. There are other "fertilities" that you can pray for, as well, including healthy crops and successful businesses. Since I am happy with the two sons I have, and the spouse has been "fixed," I certainly did not want any extra reproductive fertility magic bestowed upon me, so I focused on the successful business aspect. But I know of two people from base who went who do want to get pregnant. I will not name names, of course, but I am eager to discover if attending this festival helped them achieve their fertility goals.

So here is what we encountered:

We left base on a tour bus at 4 a.m. so that we could be in Nagoya in plenty of time for the parade. Yes, that was early fr me, but I was intrigued enough to get me and the spouse up at 3:15 a.m. for this adventure. And we did... arrive in plenty of time so that we could do some serious shopping before the parade began. First up: candy phalluses. You need to purchase these early for the best selection, our tour guide told us. I am always on the lookout for the best selection of candy penises, so that was definitely our first stop. What can I say... I like options.

I bought some for the whole family... I sent some to my parents, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and my eccentric aunt who now has them displayed on her "family shelf" at her home in Nevada. The candy penis and vagina are next to the plastic reindeer that poops out brown jelly beans, which my brother gave her years ago. And, that, my friends, is my family in a nutshell. But, Rodney appeared to be excited about my most recent purchase, so he fits right in.

These candy items cost between 200 and 800 yen each, depending on what you got. There were 5-inch phalluses alone, some packages with both a penis and a vagina in them that said in Japanese "Good luck having a baby," and some other collections that included one vagina and two penises. Make your own conclusions because I came up with several. This was actually the only place I saw vaginas anywhere that day, despite the fact it takes two to tango. It was wall-to-wall penises, but vaginas were relegated to sugary sweets.

If candy suckers weren't your idea of fertility, you could also get chocolate-covered bananas with marshmallows, with strategically-placed sprinkles. You choose brown, pink or white. Or, get wild and try all three at once.

Or, you could get fried balls.

These ladies chose bananas as their treat of the day:

I wanted one, too, but the line was about half an hour long, and I had a 13-foot wooden phallus to find. Priorities, you know? But there were plenty of other goodies to purchase, including wooden phalluses, good luck charms, and a wooden board to write your wish or gratitude on to hang at the Tagata Shrine:

I did buy an English information sheet about the festival for 100 yen from the information booth, and I am glad I did. So much of the ceremony and history was explained. I will share some of it with you as this blog progresses. First of all, the idea of the phallus leaving one shrine and traveling to another is the idea of male traveling to meet up with an awaiting female. Like we have time to sit around and wait for him to show up whenever he feels like it, right ladies? The phallus, the info sheet explained, is not a god (hear that, boys?), but  is actually an offering to the deities of fertility. I guess no one was willing to make a live sacrifice.

The parade starts at a shrine abut a mile away, the Shinmei shrine in even years and the Kumano shrine in odd years, after a gozensai, or ceremony of prayers for the safety of the procession. Since 2014 is even, we made our way to the Shinmei shrine to watch the parade procession line up. This took about a half hour to get all of the players in place... after all, you don't want to go off half-cocked and screw it all up. There are 150 people involved in the procession, not including the security personnel that use rope to keep the crowds back.

While we waited patiently, we ran in to this guy... who I cannot explain. He did not speak English, so I have no idea what his motivation was.

Or, what her motivation was...

And finally, after about a half hour of waiting, the parade procession began. First there was this scary guy on elevated wooden sandals. At first I thought he was a herald who sprinkles salt along the way, like an ugly, sunburned flower girl, making the parade route symbolically pure. But it turns out, he is a simply a deity responsible for casting a legendary woman out of heaven on to Earth. Hmm... sounds like a dubious reason to celebrate, being a woman and all, but, then again, I was at a penis parade.

Next is a 7-foot-tall banner of a phallus... just in case you were wondering what the parade was all about. We especially enjoyed all of the veiny and hairy detail the artist put in to the painting. Excellent work... I do wonder if it is a self-portrait... but I digress...

There were also some gentlemen who appeared to be important, but I am not sure what role they played in the penis parade. They were very serious about their job, though.

Next came the village dignitaries, wearing robes reminiscent of Buddhist priests. They were very proud to be there and stopped so we could photograph them.

Next up were a group of women carrying 20-inch long phalluses. Each of these women was 36, the supposed unluckiest age for women. Thank God I passed that over a year ago, Bullet dodged! This lovely lady was a great sport and posed for my camera.

I think she was used to her picture being taken, though, because earlier, I found these guys

taking pictures of these girls, and she was one of them.

Up next were the musical instruments. There was a variety of musical instruments playing a very depressing, going-to-the-gallows "ancient court music" tune. You'd think a male traveling to a female would be happier. Maybe she's ugly and a paper bag is not part of the procession. I don't know.

Next up were sacred trees called sakaki, adorned with paper amulets. Up until about 30 years ago, Japanese would crowd around these trees and tussle and fight to get one the amulets for good luck. But, being the peace-keeping people that they are, that part of the parade has been prohibited. But, fortunately, there would be ample opportunity to jostle others soon.

Next up: Liquid courage. A ceremonial barrel of sake rolled on by, followed by very accommodating ladies who offered up glasses of the fermented rice... for free.


Two portable shrines followed the sake... one symbolized a visiting "husband," and I am not sure what the other symbolized.

Then, the sight we had all been waiting for... and immediately turned our iPhones to... the main event!

The 13-foot, 620 pound phallus arrived, draped in purple and carried by men who are all the age of 42, a time in a man's life that is seen as... needing assistance when it comes to virility. Because new materials are considered most fertile, a new phallus is carved each year. I cannot find any information as to where the old phallus goes... someone may have an odd collection in their backyard. I will keep a lookout.

I want to make sure you get all of the angles.. as did the gentlemen carrying the phallus. They bounced around in a rhythm and spun the phallus in circles. It was explained that it is customary to stir up human energies, to stimulate the effect on the fertility deity they are honoring. Okay, if that's what you'd like to call it...

Once the spinning was over, the wooden penis progressed down the parade path, on it's way to the Tagata shrine. It would take it an hour to go one mile.

I know it seems cliche' and a potential "that's what she said" joke, but after the penis passed, the celebration was pretty... anti-climactic. The spouse and I headed back to the main celebration area, found a steak restaurant across the street from the Tagata shrine with a Western-style bathroom (a very hard thing to find in the area and I do not squat well), and had a meal there. At the restaurant, not in the bathroom, of course.

The phallus arrived while we were finishing our steak... and then it was time for the mochi throwing. Which, apparently, was big news for the local television station.

I had learned my lesson about mochi throwing, having been hit in the nose with one of these harder-than-they-look rice cakes at a celebration a month earlier. But, it was Rodney's first time to try and catch the good-luck rice cakes, so we waited for the mochi throwing to commence.

And waited... for 45 minutes. So, I got bored and started snapping odd photos. Here was one of the oddest:

And, finally, the mochi took flight, being tossed out by local dignitaries. The jostling commenced and we were so tightly packed, that anyone who fell was quickly covered by other people. I did not fall, I just ducked to make myself slightly lower than the average Japanese person so they would be the ones to get hit with a stray rice cake, not me.

I did my best to dodge the mochi, but was still dedicated to taking photos...

Once Rodney caught two mochi, we line-backered our way through the crowd to the back of the melee. And since the Japanese don't play American football, they were caught unaware and we managed to get through quickly and unscathed.

Below is a photo of Rodney with his mochi... I am hoping that he was not made fertile by catching these.

The information sheet I purchased said that this ceremony, the honen matsuri, is a "solemn" ceremony. Despite the music, the crowd did not appear to feel solemn. I am also not sure who attends this event each year. There were a lot of foreigners, plenty of Japanese kids and generally Japanese people of all ages in attendance. I asked my Japanese friends if they had ever gone to a fertility festival... many of them had no idea what I was talking about until I showed them a picture of the phallus. Then they giggled and shook their head. Hmm... interesting. And here I thought it was like participating in Easter egg hunts or attending the local Nutcracker performance in December. Or maybe like an annual visit from the tooth fairy, but instead of teeth she built her castle out of ... mmm, yeah. But, apparently not.

While I am glad I went, and think anyone in proximity to Nagoya on March 15 should take the time to see a 13-foot phallus and tiny candy vaginas, it is not necessarily something I need to go to again. After all, why press my luck and maybe end up with a third baby? I really don't want to have to change diapers on a regular basis again and have nothing but well-carved log of Japanese cypress to blame.

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