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 of Japanese history, involving copious amounts of straw and a large phallus.
But were the 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.
Every year between February and March, groups of local citizens are said to gather together to perform these traditional ceremonies. Going off a clue from a very tatty-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.” He added.
Wonderful. Dr. T gets 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 and have fond recollections of his hands-on and very down-to-earth approach, with slides full of photos and artefacts he’d acquired from his travels. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s a modern-day Indiana Jones, but perhaps not as athletic.
My kind of fellow, then.
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.
“There’s the turning”. I point out.
“Just down that back road and…look! Shoki-sama Matsuri! That’s our festival!”
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 up 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.
According to the men, 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!
Inside, the priest explained a little about Shoki-sama. Originally a Chinese deity, he’s the so-called ‘demon-queller’, guardian against illness and evil, protector of the home and family. Quite a guy to have around the village! The festival, says the priest, is one of several in the area. Local residents gather together to fashion a fantastic figure from straw in the guise of Shoki bearing a huge phallus. 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 2013! He’ll be pushing up the daisies soon enough!”
“Well, we’d better be quick then!” we chuckle.
“Take these gifts of sake and rice crackers with you. And here’s a fashionable sticker in the image of Shoki-sama.” says the priest.
“Awesome! What a great design” I respond.
“Thank you! Not many people say that anymore…” the priest explains, with a hint of sadness in his voice. “Certainly among younger generations, its not seen as cool, and even among older residents, most are disinterested.”
“Well, I personally love stuff like this. I’ll keep it as a memento!” I reply.
“Let’s go and see this fine Shoki then before he’s gone then.” Interjects Dr.T.
“And while we’re at it, we can take a look at the one in the neighbouring village. It’s supposed to be twice the size!”
“The phallus..?” I inquire.
“No, the figure itself. The phallus is roughly four times as big.” Dr. T replies, matter-of-factly.
We’re on out way to the neighbouring Shoki-sama. Apparently the neighbouring 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.
“So tell me about this phallus.” I ask.
Dr. T lays it out for me. 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 a kteis, the female symbol, to show harmony between male and female elements.
“And Shoki-sama?” I continue.
“Most likely a protective phallus. It’s a masculine symbol of power and strength, so it makes sense for a queller of demons to have a large member to scare off his enemies!” Dr. T explains.
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. There’s nobody around, except for a monkey screeching in the background. 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. But in-between his devilish horns and triumphant weapons was a 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. The remnants of last year’s deity, disposed of just one week earlier to rot and return to nature, symbolic of the ritual cleansing to bring in a new year.
“The locals are going to be bringing their new creation to the shrine soon.” I point at my watch.
“We’d best hurry to catch the ceremony”.
We were just in time. The local community were assembling the parts to another Shoki, this one with a member shaped more like a mini bazooka. 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’. 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, and I felt rather bad for the priest, but he explained afterwards that the roles are divided between the community and priests. The locals get up very early to spend much of the day making the figure, and then the priest takes over to make the figure into a deity to protect the village.
“But I’ll be popping over to the community center for drinks soon enough”. He added with a smile.
Wishing him farewell, we returned to our car to plot the next route. We had dozens more phallic shrines to visit and a prominent sex festival still to document. All in a day’s research with Dr. T!