Feel the heartbeat of Hida Furukawa

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Most of us know of Hida Takayama as the one of the tranquil and beautiful historic towns in rural Japan. In comparison, its neighbour, Hida Furukawa, is often overlooked and forgotten on the tourist map. Both are historic towns boasting of preserved old streets and buildings, as well as fine craftmenship of the local carpenters. However, Furukawa has something else – Furukawa Festival, an age-old festival dating back to the 17th century, also branded as one of Japan’s Three Great “Naked Festivals”.

Held every year on 19th and 20th April, it is a huge rousing night festival as the Okoshi Daiko, the “rousing drum” is paraded through town by hundreds of half-clad men from the town. This main drum is followed closely by 12 groups of men from different parts of the town, each group fighting to get the most prestigious position, which is closest to the Okoshi Daiko. Throughout the night, the steady pounding of the drum resonates throughout this historic town and spectators get engulfed in the infectious energy, emotions and drumbeat of this traditional festival.

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Due to the rural location of Furukawa, this amazing traditional festival is still relatively unheard of. However, a trippiece user proposed this trip on our trippiece.com. With that, we had a group of 20 curious travellers making the journey to Furukawa to witness and feel the spirit of the Furukawa Festival. Enough said, let the pictures do the talking.

Participants arrived from all over Japan, and gathered at one of the local Minka (a countryside folk house) we rented, complete with tatami rooms and kotatsu table!

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We kicked off the event with a huge lunch party to break the ice. Everyone was resting, eating and meeting new people after a long journey to Furukawa. We even had the privilege to speak with some of the locals who will be participating in the night parade!

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Well-rested and well-fed, we took a walk around town to enjoy the historical ambience of this hidden town.

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Along the way, we also managed to catch the day parades of the festival! Similar to other Japanese festivals, there was a “mikoshi” procession, a parade of the portable shrine around town.

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There were also dancers and performers. Seems like the entire town, from children to the seniors were involved in this spectacular festival!

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As night falls, the highlight of the festival drew nearer and we began to see groups of men getting ready for the big event! We were very lucky as two of our participants were invited to join in the parade! Now, a little sake to warm up the naked bodies in the cold and they were good to go!

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We sat on the balcony of our Minka to witness this spectacular festival. The quiet little town was charged with energy and emotions  as the men moved to the beat of the drums, jostled against each other, and fought to be nearest to the Okoshi Daiko.

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The parade ended on a high note in the open space in town. It was hard to believe how this quiet little town had transformed within the span of a few hours. It was one of those moments where you felt like you were transported back in time and all of a sudden you feel emotional and your hair are standing on ends without really knowing why.

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The night ended in a great dinner and celebration. We were all thankful to be able to witness and take part in such a grand and spectacular festival. It is indeed a secret of rural Japan, one of those things where you are not too sure if it’s good to tell too many people about. For now, we’re just happy to share our experience at this emotionally-charged night festival. We hope this glorious age-old tradition will be preserved for many years to come. And perhaps we’ll be back again next year..

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(Pictures courtesy of Yoshida Yusuke and Mayumi Takemura.)

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The Most Bizarre Festival Ever

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Oh yes, it’s spring time. Blue skies, sakura blooming, an old Japanese shrine.. Wait a second, is that what I’m seeing? A statue of a bright pink penis in the shrine grounds?!?

Yes, it is. Welcome to Japan, and to the Kanamara Festival, also known as the Festival of the Steel Phallus. The festival is held in Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, an area near Tokyo and Yokohama, on every first Sunday in April.

According to WikiFestivals, the festival has its roots way back in 1600s, where prostitutes would pray for protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Today, it is more of an tourist attraction and the money raised at the festival goes to funding for HIV awareness and research.

After I heard about this festival, I simply HAD TO go experience it for myself. Upon arriving at the shrine, we were greeted by beautiful sakura, lots of foreigners and banners with pictures of the penis.

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The first thing we came across was some ceremony for praying to the mikoshi (portable shrines). I didn’t really know what was going on, but we were told that the huge pink penis is called the Elizabeth Mikoshi. Apparently it was initially used in Akihabara, an area renowned for Japanese pop culture – anime, manga and video games.

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After the morning ceremony, it was announced that there will be a radish carving competition! Seems like anyone up for it can go carve one of the radishes. Of course, it has to be in the shape of a penis. Looks like the candidates were all pretty skilled in this aspect!

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The mikoshi parade (a parade in which the portable shrines are carried and paraded around town as a sign of transporting the deity in the shrine) started at around noon time. The procession was kicked off by some of the shrine members parading before the mikoshi. I’m not really sure of the significance of their costumes.

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As with all mikoshi processions, strong men are needed to carry the heavy mikoshi. Upon heaving it onto their shoulders in one go, they move the mikoshi up and down rhythmically. The crowd went wild and everyone cheered for them.

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The first and heaviest mikoshi making its way out of the main shrine.

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The second mikoshi, Elizabeth Mikoshi, was carried by a group of transvestite. Don’t belittle them, they’re all pretty strong!

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And the last mikoshi…

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Apart from the ceremony, there were also plenty to do and see in the shrine. You could take pictures with the wooden penis statues, or buy a penis omamori (good luck charm) from the shrine, eat a penis lollipop, or amuse yourself with the outrageous souvenirs that are on sale in the stalls.

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There were some strange things on sale. It makes me wonder if I’d ever have another chance to use them without inviting weird looks from other people.

1) Handkerchiefs with penis and vagina prints

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2) Penis and boobs masks, as nicely dorn by the male models.

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3) Penis lollipops

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4) All other random things related to the penis

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Although the theme of the Kanamara Festival seems like such a taboo topic, the festival was actually a very light-hearted affair compared to other religious festivals. It seems more like a carnival than a religious celebration. About half the crowd was foreigners. I guess, like me, they were all curious about this Japan-only festival.

And as always, Japan never fails to amaze me.

Kanamara Matsuri, checked!