My first year in Japan, I lived in Komaki, a little farming town known for a few things: a mountain, azaleas, and its penis parade.
Actually, the parade is probably the most important, and it’s serious business. It’s called Honen Matsuri.
First, a brief bit about shines. Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to specific things, like chickens, cats, feet, etc. So, if you have a problem with your feet, you go to the feet shrine, wave some incense on your feet, pray, buy feet-shaped candy, etc and that should fix it. There is a shrine for everything.
Komaki was known for its two fertility shrines, one on each side of town: male and female. The male shrine was decorated with stone penises, and one could buy penis charms, penis-shaped candy, etc. The female shrine had a massive, vagina-shaped gate at the front and matching sculptures and candy. These places are serious and quiet, mainly used a place to pray for a baby or to solve fertility issues. Spiritual Viagra.
Once a year, the men of the town go to the male shrine, and take out a monstrous penis carved from cypress, which has a portqatble shrine in the middle.. They carry this float to the shrine across town, accompanied by a solemn parade, and spin it around and ram it through the female shrine gate; apparently this is to bring good luck and many children to the town. The people of the town cheer and have a good time, but you absolutely do not make fun of it. (I did, at a different time, ask if there was a queen of this parade and if I could ride the float, but no one thought I was funny.) It’s definitely a sight to see.
Komaki is not the only town to do this sort of thing. A nearby city has the Naked Man festival. Basically, once a year, they choose a man to be the “god-man.” The god-man spends a year in the male shrine, training. On the day of the festival, all the men gather around the shrine, wearing nothing but fundoshi, a traditional underwear, and drink beer and spray each other with cold water. Then, the God-man, completely naked, runs out from the shrine and begins running circles around the shrines, and all the other men chase him, trying to touch him, as doing so makes the men extra-virile. Of course, given the amount of alcohol consumed, pretty soon all the men are naked and running in a big circle.
I admit, I watched the running of the naked men on television, as a male friend advised me that being in a group of drunken, naked men wanting to test their virility is not a good place for a woman, and I took the advice to heart. The Komaki festival is perfectly safe, however, though I watched it from my balcony. The penis candy, which was lemon-flavored, was not bad.
(Incidentally, speaking of strange temple souvenirs, there’s a temple in Kyoto that sells god-shaped sandwich cookies–Buddha, Jesus, you name it. They’re probably sacrilegious but they’re really tasty.)