A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Fun-Filled Fertility Festival (with nothing left to the imagination)- HEISANBO – in Kasumigaura City`s Ushiwata

By Avi Landau

The women who plays OKAME ( Heisanbo`s wife) is all dressed up and ready to go

Ritual impregnation as a prayer for abundant crops and human fertility (conception) at the Heisanbo Festival

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 Holiday- Children’s 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 playful and spring-like way.

To the left of the main torii gate, in a small hall used for prayers for easy delivery, I saw the two wooden phalluses used in the Heisanbo Ceremony

About 30 minutes before the main rituals began, a priest sounded the drum while the little SAOTOME girls looked on

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!

A horse is run around the shrine`s main hall 3 times


Holding one in my hand

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.

The locals who play Heisanbo and Okame getting ready

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 occassionaly beat him with leaf-laden branches, as well.

The masks used in the ceremony were also on display ( in the same small hall) before the festivities began

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 receiving 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?

The Kashima Shrine in Ushiwata (Kasumigaura City) sits upon a hill which is actually an ancient shell-mound (KAIZUKA- a garbage dump of sorts for the area`s prehistoric inhabitants)- the ground is literally strew with shell and pottery shards, with some placed as offerings at this small hall

The ground within the precincts of the shrine is strewn with 3,000 year-old pottery shards and shells, the remnants of prehistoric meals

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 community just before the rice was transplanted.

One woman who had come to the shrine to pray for fertility and took hold of the wooden phallus

Heisanbo being tapped with leaf laden branches

A shy little touch

On the top steps of the Main Hall three rice seedling bunches which would be used later on in a prayer for abundant harvests

The priest slowly leads one of SAOTOME down the main worshippers path

And then back to the shrine for the next little girl`s turn

A view form behind of the Kashima Shrine in Ushiwata ( Kasumigaura-City)- the area is teeming with shell and pottery shards

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 definitely merit a stop are a cluster of tombs made of oyster shells, and a large tomb mound built to inter a loyal ox.

Carp streamers flying proudly in front of a large farmhouse in Kasumigaura City

An ancient grave made of oyster shells- along the road by the shores of Lake Kasumigaura



This is not the actual festival, but a recreation of it for the opening scene of Tadashi Imai`s award-winning film KOME (米) of 1957. This was actually filmed in autumn, and any colorful leaves had to be spray painted over to make it look like May.

This is not the actual festival, but a recreation of it for the opening scene of Tadashi Imai`s award-winning film KOME (米) of 1957. This was actually filmed in autumn, and any colorful leaves had to be spray painted over to make it look like May.


Another scene from Imai`s classic film Kome (米), a dark 1957 drama, depicted the harsh lives of people living at the time around Lake Kasumigaura. The film opens with a recreation of the Heisanbo Festival - san the phallus!

Another scene from Imai`s classic film Kome (米), a dark 1957 drama, depicting the harsh, hopeless lives of people living at the time around Lake Kasumigaura. The film opens with a recreation of the Heisanbo Festival – san the phallus!



  • Nora says:

    Ok, lot’s of fun from yesterday but amazing tornado was around here…
    are you safety all of you…wishing the best for everybody!

  • Meirav says:

    Avi, I might have an incorrect number as the message wouldn’t send. Are you and family safe? You are all very much welcome to say with us.
    Meirav and Ehud