Japan Folklore: Hōnen Matsuri

Hōnen Matsuri

Photo Credits: google.it

The Honen Matsuri is celebrated every year on March 15 throughout Japan. The most famous one takes place at the Tagata Jinja, in the small town of Komaki, outside Nagoya, with photos and videos available on the Internet. But in other parts of Japan, such as the Honen Matsuri of Okinawa, this festival is still considered a sacred and secret rite and no photo or recording is allowed. Even speaking or writing about what has been seen is technically prohibited.

Hōnen Matsuri (豊年祭),  literally “Harvest Festival”, has a 1500-year-long history: its purpose is to guarantee the fertility of the harvest for the following year. A ritual full of blessings for the harvest, but also for all sorts of prosperity and fertility in general. This celebration could take on obscene features, at least in western eyes,  because its symbol is a 280 kg cypress pine phallus, with a length of 2.5 meters. But it is absolutely not like that.

Phallic rites have in fact prehistoric origins. It is believed that this local indigenous rites, and the corresponding vaginal fertility practices and beliefs, were easily accommodated by the new system of Taoist beliefs that were taking root in Japan. System of beliefs that would later form the Way of Yin and Yang, the traditional esoteric cosmology. The local fertility cults co-existed and appear to have been encouraged, institutionalized and presided over by the royal elites from Nara.  Élites who established themselves as feudal lords over expanded local areas.

The celebration of fertility

An important element of Japanese Shinto festivals are processions, in which the kami (Shinto divinity) of the local shrine is transported across the city in a mikoshi 神輿 or 御輿 (palanquin, small portable shrine). It is the only time of the year in which the kami leaves its shrine to be carried around the city. It is said that this transporting of the deity rite is based on a legend about the enshrined kami, Takeinazumi-no-mikoto. He had an enormous penis and took a local woman, Aratahime-no-mikoto, as his wife.

At 9:00 am preparations are underway: food stands peep out with their chocolate bananas carved in the shape of a penis and decorated at the base with marshmallows. Here and there, stalls of souvenirs, statuettes and other objects to be offered to the loved ones wishing for great fertility. These statues allow couples to pray for a child, the unmarried pray for a husband or wife, while farmers hope for abundant harvest. Everything enlivened by the unfailing distribution of all-you-can-drink sake contained in big wooden barrels.

Photo credits: thingstodoinnagoyawhenyouredeaddrunk.wordpress.com

The ceremony begins around 10:00 pm. Priests sprinkle the road with salt to purify the way ahead of the carriers. They also say prayers and impart blessings on participants and  mikoshi, as well as on the large wooden phallus that has to be carried along the parade route. The starting point is a shrine called Shinmei Sha (on even-numbered years), located on a large hill, or the Kumano-sha  shrine (on odd-numbered years), to arrive at the Tagata Jinja shrine. Once here, there is the traditional mochi nage rite: participants fight to grab one of the small rice cakes thrown by the officials from their raised platforms. These sweets will bring good luck for the next year.