On May 5th – A Fun-Filled Fertility Festival (with nothing left to the imagination)- HEISANBO – in Kasumigaura City`s Ushiwata
By Avi Landau
There are many, who based on their readings of certain books, or visits to Japan which include taking in: the Noh theater , a tea ceremony, or a meal at an exclusive KAISEKI (traditional haute-cuisine) restaurant, are under the impression that Japanese traditional culture is all refinement, elegance, and understatement. The unspoken word, the pregnant silence, the subtle gesture, the elusive symbolism…………
and I guess that they would be correct to a certain extent.
But those who have on a May 5th of any given year gathered at the old Kashima Shrine on a hill overlooking Lake Kasumigaura in the hamlet of Ushiwata (牛渡), get to see another side of Japan`s traditional culture- one which can still be often encountered in the countryside ( and in just about every city as well at festival time)- a culture which knows nothing of refinement or subtlety, but one that is rustic, ribald, bawdy, and bursting with energy- in other words: LOTS OF FUN!
The Heisanbo Festival which is held on the National Holday- Childrens Day (May 5th), functions as a prayer for abundant harvests and human fertility (conception). I guess it could also be said to be a celebration of spring itself- in the most playfull and spring-like way.
The festival, in fact, consists of 3 separate parts: first, at 3:30 PM, a horse is run three times around the shrine`s main hall ( this is a surprisingly treacherous and dangerous undertaking, especially with all the children running around unrestricted. It even looked for a second like the horse, quite hysterical, would break away). This is part of the festival was a symbolic act of plowing.
I later learned that for a time, a few years back, a tractor had been used in this part of the ceremony instead, but fortunately the horse has been brought back!
But no matter how exciting it is to have the live horse (with bearers in traditional garb), the centerpiece of the event- what nearly everyone comes to this event for- is the middle section: the Heisanbo Ceremony- which is a comic ritualization of the reproductive act.
Heisanbo is the name of a farmer who is out plowing the fields. His part is played by an elderly local gentleman who is a real character and genuinely funny. He dresses in pajama-like peasant wear and soils his face with ashes.
Two other ACTORS, a man and a woman (both local) dress up in kimonos- stuffed to make them look pregnant. Then they don very old wooden masks which makes them both representations of women of child-bearing age.
After the horse has done its thing, Heisanbo makes his appearance. He also makes three circuits of the main hall- but there is one thing which arouses excitement in the crowd (of men women and children of all ages)- he carries with him, in the correct anatomical location, a huge wooden phallus!
As he makes his way around the shrine, woman approach him and touch or caress the large member or take it against their own pelvises. Men occassionally beat him with leaf-laden branches, as well.
What then happens is that the two WOMEN appear. The story which is supposed to be told is that Heisanbo`s wife coming to greet him during a break in his hard day of plowing. She brings food, but has also come for a lunch-time QUICKY. The only trouble is that some other women or perhaps supernatural being (played by a local gentleman) has transformed into the wife`s double in order to be on the recieving end of Heisanbo`s sexual favors!
The most amusing part of the festivities for me is how the actor who plays Heisanbo busies himself with women who had come to the festival to pray for conception. Others, those who come with cameras, ask for poses so that some memorable pictures can be taken ( and plenty are !). The only problem is that sometimes the two other actors have already made their entrances and start beckoning (like MANEKI NEKO) to Heisanbo to come consort with them- while he is busy with the other women and having pictures taken- quite hilarious!
Last year, I laughed out loud when the male actor in the female mask called out in his deep voice- Hey, what about me?
After the Heisanbo portion of the event is finally completed it is time for the last ceremony of the day- THE SAOTOME ritual, which involves two little girls ( about ten years of age) who dress in red YUKATA. One after the other, they are pulled gently along out in front of the main hall by an elderly KANNUSHI (Shinto priest). This is also done as a prayer for abundant harvests and brings to mind the ancient tradition of having women segregated from the communitty just before the rice was transplanted.
The simplicity, humor, and dramatically rustic setting make for a memorable event- one that I must say is lots more fun that the Noh theater or a tea ceremony.
And the setting is highly atmospheric as well. A village deep in the Ibaraki countryside, all around the shrine are rice field, lotus root fields and big old traditional farm-houses. The ground on the hill upon which the shrine stands is strewn with ancient shells, evidence of a prehistoric village having once existed nearby,
Since the heisanbo festival is held on May 5th, many of these houses ( those with male offspring) have hoisted impossibly large and colorful clusters of carp streamers from very high polls which are in fact made of whole trees.
The road running along Lake Kasumigaura which takes you to Ushiwata from Tsuchiura is also of great interest- with charming old villages and a wide variety of curious Kofun Period tombs. The ones that definitley merit a stop are a cluster of tombs made of oyster shells, and a large tomb mound built to inter a loyal ox.