One thing I enjoy most about travel is the opportunity to experience a culture far removed from my own. Japan is a country rich in culture, and I never tire of dipping my toes in its vast waters, so to speak. Recently, I had the opportunity to partake in an unusual cultural experience: Honen Matsuri.
Entrance to Tagata Jinja shrine.
Location and date.
Honen Matsuri is held every year on the same date, March 15th, regardless of the day of the week. It is a harvest and fertility festival, taking place between Tagata Jinja shrine, and Shinmei Sha shrine, in Komaki, Aichi prefecture. What makes it unusual? That would be the penises.
Some of the resident penises of Tagata Jinja shrine.
Yep. Penises. A fertility festival in Japan honours the phallus, and Honen Matsuri is no different. Every year, a new penis is carved from Japanese cedar, in impressive anatomical detail, enshrined into a regal looking Mikoshi (portable shrine), and paraded down the quiet streets of Komaki for all to marvel at.
The penis of the moment, carved from beautiful Japanese cedar.
A little bit of background for you. Incredibly, this festivity has been ongoing for 1500 years, as dated by pottery discovered in 1935. Tagata Jinja itself is a fertility shrine, and on its own is most interesting. It is littered with penises. People traditionally come here to pray for a baby, or if single, to pray to meet a spouse, and even farmers come to pray for bountiful crops. So, despite it’s unusual decor, it’s a place that holds deep sentimentality.
Ema displaying the many wishes of worshipers at Tagata Jinja shrine.
New over old.
I mentioned briefly that every year a new penis is carved. This is because new items are believed to be the most pure. After the festival ends, the penis is put up for auction, and is sold to a private buyer, something I found most interesting (and something I’d invest in myself!).
All of the Mikoshi lined up, ready to be blessed.
Let’s talk festival. It starts at 11.00am, but you can turn up much earlier to browse the many food vendors, check out the two shrines, buy some unusual gifts (penis statues and vagina bowls, amongst other things), and suck on some phallic candy.
At 11.00am, a procession arrived to Tagata Jinja in loud fanfare. It was a parade of men, accompanied by sake trees and huge sake barrels. Sake is given out for free to festival goers that look of legal age (20 years old in Japan), and this part of the festival is very raucous and fun. After the sake trees and procession is done, they park up and it’s back to enjoying food and penis statues.
The Mikoshi bearing the penis is already at Shinmei Sha shrine, where it will be blessed by Shinto priests at 1.00pm, prior to its departure at 2.00pm on the parade route to Tagata Jinja (where it finishes its journey).
Entrance to Shinmei Sha shrine.
The parade is led by a Tengu (Japanese mythical creature vaguely resembling a bird of prey). Following this, a group of maidens carry small wooden penis statues, holding them out for people to touch and rub for luck. There are also flags waved, one depicting a very veiny, Shunga-esque penis.
The Tengu and his impressive footwear.
There are three Mikoshi. One containing the penis, and two containing dolls of a Prince and Princess. The sake trees and barrels from earlier also attend, with volunteers keeping the crowd well oiled with sake! The parade route is short, the two shrines are about 5 minutes from one another, but the parade itself takes about an hour and a half, due to the pace, and the fact that it stops regularly to dance and whip up the crowd. Finally, once the procession reaches Tagata Jinja, mochi balls are thrown into the waiting crowds, and so the festival ends for another year.
The maidens pose for pictures with their penises before the parade starts.
Spoils of war.
You can’t go to such an unusual event and not buy yourself some souvenirs. I ended up with quite a few. First, I visited the Omikuji desk (almost all shrines and some temples have them), invested in some small phallic charms, and two ema (Japanese wishing boards), both with penis designs adorning them. Next, I bought a very large, very blue, ceramic penis. My husband took a liking to a vagina ashtray (neither of us smoke but oh well), so we got that too. It was also blue, meaning it matched my penis. Nice. I want to say it’s anatomically correct, but they missed out the clitoris (I’m going to assume a man designed it!). I then bought some penis candy for myself and my friends. That was meant to be it, but my husband had other ideas… The stall selling the statues also had for sale a beautiful piece of Shunga art, carved in wood. Shunga is a very distinct type of explicit art popular in Edo days, and usually graphically depicts sexual acts. My husband bought it, much to the shock of the vendor and other customers. It’s now sat proudly in our living room with our other festival spoils.
Some souvenirs from the festival, and from a temple I will talk about in another post.
The large, graphic Shunga my husband invested in. I love it, but it was a bitch to get home.
Just the tip(s).
To get the most out of the festival, here are some tips.
- Stay in Komaki. Komaki is a small, industrial town, and compared to other Japanese cities, doesn’t have much in the way of entertainment, but it’s still an interesting place with a few hidden gems. There are several hotels and air bnb’s. We stayed at Hotel Joy (adult only, it’s a love hotel), which was only a short drive, around 20 minutes, away. Which brings me to my next point.
- Hire a car. You can get by without one, but a car makes it much easier. Parking on festival day can be a pain, so I advise turning up early and utilising one of the public car parks nearby (we found one an 8 minute walk away for 500 yen per day).
- Take lots of yen. You’ll probably want to buy all the candy and souvenirs, and they don’t take card, so take plenty of yen cash. If you do come up short, no sweat, a Lawson’s 10 minutes walk away has an ATM that can dispense to foreign cards (there will be a small fee).
- Get there early. Like, two hours early. That way, you can check out the area sans crowd, great for pictures, and you can buy what you want, and not be disappointed that its sold out.
- Get a map of the parade route, walk it. If you take my advice to get there early, then grab a map from one of the festival workers, and walk the route so you can see where it is. This will give you a chance to pick a good spot, and also allow you to see both shrines before the chaos begins.
- Familiarise yourself with the festival schedule. The map will have this information, though only in Japanese. However, at Tagata Jinja, there is a board up with the festival schedule, including times for key events. Snap a pic of this, and use it to make sure you don’t miss out. Events are split between the two shrines.
- Pick a good spot. You can of course follow the procession from Shinmei Sha to Tagata Jinja, but you risk missing much of it due to high crowd volumes. I suggest going to watch the blessings and taking photos of the mikoshi, but then leaving before it departs and setting up to watch it pass. Once it has, then join it, so you are at the end when the mochi is thrown.
I had a great time. The atmosphere is very lively and welcoming, with people of all ages in attendance. I did see some inappropriate behaviour (men getting too close to women, trying to touch them), but the strong police presence kept this in check. It was a fascinating look into something I’d never see in my home country, and as always, it was great to learn something new. I hope to attend next year too.
The Shunga-esque penis flag.
Happy and safe travels,