The Long And The Short Of It – November 2010

The Long And The Short Of It

By Rebecca Kool


tanabataI arrived in Nagoya, Japan in the fall of 1994, fresh off burnout from six years in the hotel industry. At age 50, beset by wanderlust, I cast off the shackles of ownership, packed all my worldly goods, and set off for an adventure in the most foreign of foreign countries.

Soon afterward, I became friends with several American women who helped me navigate the language and culture roadblocks. We traveled everywhere by Japan Railway, the most efficient way to see the country.

In March, we set out for a festivalthat centers on phallic worship. The Taagata Shrine in Komaki is just outside Nagoya. The central theme is that the sexual joining of male and female elements is necessary to ensure abundant crops. Taagata’s festival emphasizes the male member, represented by replicas in varying sizes, including ones carved out of huge logs.

My friends and I are best described as “ample.” We three cut quite a swath and many Japanese openly gaped at the large, blond, loudgaijin.The throngs parted like the Red Sea, allowing us to board the train without the usual push and shove. After transferring to a local train crowded with others bound for Komaki , we ended up standing next to one another, hanging onto straps–overweight Kewpie dolls swaying with the rhythm of the train.

Japan’s two major religions, Shinto and Buddhism, form an integral part of its culture with both religions emphasizing group ceremonies and celebrations. Every major shrine and temple around the country—and there are thousands—has an annual festival. Matsuri are street processions held to honor the deity of the temple/shrine. Most include a mikoshi, a portable shrine in which the spirit of the deity can be moved about. Carrying the mikoshithrough the streets was thought to spread the purifying power of the deity and neutralize any evil in the vicinity.

Carried along by the crowds to the heart of the matsuri, we found food, loud music, and wall-to-wall people. The shrine altar bulged with realistic replicas. Outside, a larger than life stone carving, splendidly erect, stood waiting for parents to hoist their girls atop while they prayed for her future fertility.

Fortified by sake, we eagerly awaited the main event—the parade with a larger than life phallus on wheels. Dainty kimono-clad women led the procession, each reverently holding a phallus. Well-lubricated, frenzied men presented themikoshito the hysterical crowds. Does size matter? In Taagata it sure does! Eager for a photo and encouraged by the lead man, I inched my way forward, dragging someone else with me.

We were positioned, my hand strategically placed. I was shoved closer to the giant member and told to embrace it. I’d had my fair share of sakeso I was happy to oblige, hamming it up for the crowds who cheered me on.

We ate some unidentifiable foods, and munched on chocolate dipped bananas as we walked to the station. Standing at a crosswalk, I was startled to find a man standing close to me. Through body language and gestures I guessed that he was asking me if I’d enjoyed myself. I gave the North American hand signal for “OK.” The next thing I knew his hand flew to my breast! Perhaps my gesture was misinterpreted but I doubt it. I think some people just get turned on by the festivities…. and thesake.

We raced to get seats; soon the warmth of forced-air heaters settled the passengers. I closed my eyes and wondered what my three grown children would think of their mother’s day at the festival!

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