Along the Agano river, deep within Niigata Prefecture are several small villages. Each one supposedly participates in maintaining a long religious folk tradition, found dating back to the late Edo period involving deities named Shoki-sama. During the annual Shoki Festival, each village fashions it’s own life-sized deity out of straw giving special attention to its (male) genitalia.
Originally a Chinese deity, Shoki-sama is a so-called ‘demon-queller,’ who guards against illness and evil.
Upon learning about this, I had several questions. Were these local customs still upheld? And what was the significance of the phallus involved? With a brisk chill still in the air from a lingering winter, I headed out with a certain Dr. T to explore these remote areas of the Japanese countryside and investigate further.
Off to Niigata
Going off a clue from a very ratty looking book Dr. T had procured, we set out in our rental car aiming for the old road.
“It shouldn’t be too far from central Niigata”. Dr. T advised me as we came off the motorway.” But I am just a little concerned that our shrine will be buried in a mound of snow. That’s why I brought you along.”
Wonderful. Dr. T got me to catch the first train from Tokyo on a Saturday morning to go and dig out a shrine lost somewhere in the vast countryside of Niigata. I keep my thoughts to myself and take a sip of my morning Blendy coffee, sinking deeper into the passenger seat.
“I hope our map is accurate. There’s a lot of snow-covered shrines out there.” I sulk, already missing my warm bed back home.
Incidentally, Dr. T is the affectionate nickname for the idiosyncratic Dr. Stephen Turnbull. British historian and academic, he’s a specialist in Japanese military history and eastern religion. I had the pleasure of sitting in on his incredibly popular course “Samurai and the Sacred” back in my university days. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s a modern-day Indiana Jones, but perhaps not as athletic.
It wasn’t long before we were nearing our destination. Most other cars had vanished from the road and convenience stores proved surprisingly difficult to find.
Lining the narrow road were several prominent flags, a sharp red in contrast to the winter landscape around us, bearing the name of our deity. There was no mistaking this was the place to be today!
After parking, we wandered to the small wayside shrine hidden in a cluster of trees. Inside were three men huddled around a kerosene fire drinking sake and eating rice crackers. They paid us no attention as we stood in front of the frosted glass doors, and it wasn’t until I knocked and began sliding one open that they looked up at us.
What the heck is a Shoki anyway?
We were just in time. The locals had begun making the parts for this year’s Shoki and were at the community center down the road. One of the men, the local priest, would be performing the ceremony later that afternoon. Right now, however, it was break-time, so they invited us inside for a chat. It seems the tradition was still alive and kicking!
After the locals have constructed him, the priest will bless the figure and deify him, creating a god of what was once a straw-man.
Inside, the priest explained a little about Shoki-sama. Originally a Chinese deity, Shoki-sama is a so-called “demon-queller,” who guards against illness and evil. Quite a guy to have around the village! The festival is one of several in the area. Local residents gather together to fashion a fantastic straw figure to symbolize the shoki deity bearing a huge… male member.
After the locals have constructed him, the priest will bless the figure and deify him, creating a god of what was once a straw-man. He would then be put in place of the previous year’s god behind the shrine to protect the village, and the old Shoki-sama would be tossed out in the woods to rot and return to nature.
“In fact”, the priest says, “you can go out back right now and pay your respects to the Shoki-sama of last year!”
“Well, we’d better be quick then!” we chuckle. “And while we’re at it, we can take a look at the one in the neighboring village. It’s supposed to be twice the size,” Dr. T quips.
“The phallus..?” I inquire.
“No, the figure itself. The phallus is roughly four times as big,” Dr. T replies, matter-of-factly.
Apparently, the neighboring deity had been freshly re-created in the shrine atop the hill, just inside the forest entrance and was sporting a phallus to put even the biggest contenders to shame.
But why is it so… big?
Phalli are used in many different ways in Japanese folk religion. Some are used to pray for fertility, both human and agricultural, while others are used as protective symbols of power and strength to ward off evil. Others still might be found combined with the female genitalia, to show the harmony between male and female elements.
In the case of the Shoki, his phallus is a masculine symbol of power and strength. I guess he needs it to scare off the evil spirits.
A short climb up the hill and we find our academic gold. A huge straw Shoki-sama, sitting spread-eagle in a secluded wooden shrine in the middle of a forest. This place has a sacred, untouched feel. So far off the beaten track and so well hidden that you really have to know what you’re in search of to find it.
We weren’t disappointed. In front of the colossal Shoki-sama were offerings of oranges, sake and rice crackers. In addition, some old-looking swords, evidently the Shoki’s armaments.
In between his devilish horns and triumphant weapons was something much fiercer. A huge phallus bound together with straw pointing out like an armed shotgun. It was made all the more atmospheric by the carefree feel of his arms, seemingly tucked away behind his head, giving an air of superiority.
Checking around the back, we found a steep slope falling down into the woods and, sure enough, a smattering of straw and body parts. They were remnants of last year’s deity disposed of just one week earlier to rot and return to nature, symbolizing the ritual cleansing to bring in a new year.
No television crews or herds of stalls selling phallic sweets like so many other so-called ‘penis festivals.’ This is a very private affair with deep roots.
Back in the village, the local community was assembling the parts to another Shoki. After a toast with some sake, we witnessed them energetically hoisting it atop their shoulders and charging down the local street towards the shrine. Just a bunch of locals, me, and Dr. T. No television crews or herds of stalls selling phallic sweets like so many other so-called “penis festivals.” This is a very private affair with deep roots.
Once at the shrine, the locals proceeded to take the old Shoki-sama down and put up the new one, attaching him to a huge tree, adding horns, a hat, and swords to his belt. A fine specimen indeed. The old Shoki-sama was then deposited rather unceremoniously in a grove of trees out back. It was a majestic sight to behold. An old, spent god being given back to nature, looking out over the mountains of the Niigata countryside, phallus pointing towards the heavens.
The locals were done with their work for the day and after paying their respects, promptly returned to the community center for drinks and food. Meanwhile, inside the shrine, the priest began the deification process. We were the only guests.
Wishing him farewell, we returned to our car to plot the next route. We had dozens more phallic shrines to visit. All in a day’s research with Dr. T.
To learn more about this intimate, hyper-local Niigata tradition, visit the Aga Tourism Association website (Japanese only).