By Lawrence I. Charters
Off Duty, March 1986, p. JPN-10
This month in Japan, visit a fertility festival with a twist, salute St. Patrick, and get ready for the cherry blossoms
March is the cruelest month of the year for skiers. While everyone else wakes up hoping that today will be just a little bit warmer than yesterday, skiers awaken with a prayer for winter to hang in there for just one more weekend. But while the downhill diehards watch the snow melt and dream of the coming winter months in Australia, March is an excellent time for non-skiers to be in Japan.
Now is the time to visit the Japan Alps, the Fuji Five Lakes region and Nikko. Nearly every tour organization has a tour heading to one or all of these areas, drawn by the snow-capped peaks and spectacular scenery. Rivers and lakes, filled with first winter runoff, are far more impressive than during the lazy days of summer, and the skies are generally clear, making for superb photographs.
March is also the month for dolls, with the Hina Matsuri, or Doll’s Festival, celebrated on March 3. During the festival, families display dolls on tiers covered with red cloth, where both new and antique dolls ~re accorded places of honor. Most displays show a set of 15 court figures from Japan’s colorful past.
Although children are welcomed, few parents take them along to one of the month’s more unusual highlights: the Nagoya Fertility Festival. Fertility festivals are held throughout Japan during March, and exactly why this particular festival became so popular is something of a mystery. It isn’t even in Nagoya, but a few miles to the north, in the city of Komaki.
Two Shinto shrines jointly sponsor the celebration, and there is never a shortage of pomp, ceremony, and … ah … unusual paraphernalia.
On March 15, the festival reaches its peak with a grand procession from one shrine to another. The parade is deliberately routed along the dikes of neighboring rice paddies; along the way, priests toss rice into the air and offer rice wine — sake — to the crowd.
Rice fertility, however, isn’t the only kind being honored. Tagata Shrine, one of the sponsors, owns a large and varied collection of interestingly shaped stones and pieces of wood gathered over hundreds of years to honor, as the priests put it, the “male fertility symbol.” Another shrine, honoring the “female fertility symbol,” is located within walking distance.
Any lingering doubts about the festival’s purpose disappear after one look at the parade’s centerpiece: a wooden male fertility symbol nearly 10 feet long. Candy replicas of this symbol, and its female counterpart, are sold by vendors along the way and in stalls at Tagata Shrine. Mailed back to the States, they make, shall we say, interesting presents for relatives and friends.
Virtually every military installation in Japan will have a tour to the festival organized, often with the choice of a one-day marathon trip to see the parade or a more leisurely two-day journey that also takes in Nagoya Castle and other local sights.
On March 17, Irish men and women of all races, cultures and nationalities will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and local clubs and night-spots will do their best to assist. Some military clubs, mindful of the fact that Congress has not recognized the day as an official U.S. holiday, will get a jump on the rest of the world and honor St. Patrick a day early. The New Sanno hotel in Tokyo will be hosting special programs in recognition of Ireland’s patron saint. Be sure to wear green.
If the weather is good, this is one of the best times to visit Tokyo Disney land, the newest of the Disney amusement parks. Neither too warm nor unbearably cold, the March air seems almost tailor-made for visiting Mickey, Snow White and the rest of the gang. It is also early enough in the year to miss the huge crowds that come with the April school break.
About the only day you should avoid Disneyland is March 21, a national holiday. Shumbun no-hi (the vernal equinox) is a big day for travel, with millions of people returning to their family homes to honor their ancestors and, in farming communities, to celebrate the coming of spring and the planting season. Many also visit their local temples and shrines, dressed in traditional kimono, making this a good time to put the old camera to work.
Late March and early April witness the blooming of the first cherry blossoms of the year. This brief burst of pink glory takes place at different times in Japan, and is always dependent on the weather. But the combination of beauty and uncertainty is exactly what the Japanese find so attractive about the cherry blossom. Most cherry blossom festivals and cherry viewing parties take place in April, but the cherry trees may have other ideas, so have film and camera prepared and ready.