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Sexual Tourism: An International Tour of Spring Fertility Festivals

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Perhaps it’s a cliché, but it‘s eternally true: springtime brings thoughts of new life, birth, and evidence of sexual reproduction. As real chicks hatch from birds’ nests, we eat sugar-coated marshmallow chicks delivered by a mythical bunny (and we all know what bunnies like to do in their spare time).

  Kanamara Matsuri — Kawasaki, Japan

Kawasaki, Japan, may be best known in the West for its motorcycles, but Kawasaki also knows how to throw a huge sex party. The city holds its fertility festival/tourist attraction, [itaic|Kanamara Matsuri] (Festival of the Iron Phallus), the first week of April. Japan doesn’t shy away from the phallic associations of this 400-year-old Shinto practice. Not only do participants carry a penis-shaped, wooden battering ram down the street on their shoulders, they also indulge in penis-shaped snacks, from suggestively carved veggies to dumplings baked to resemble the male member. Penis-shaped souvenirs are everywhere, and although foreigners are generally discouraged from observing Shinto rituals, Kanamara Matsuri is an exception. It attracts hundreds of tourists, and is also a favorite festival of drag queens and the transgendered.

Legend has it the festival honors a blacksmith who created a gigantic iron dildo to slay an evil spirit that had taken up residence in a young woman’s vagina. The festival originated at the Shinto shrine called Wakamiya Hachimangu, once frequented by meshimori onna, the waitress-hookers who serviced travelers at the popular rest stop between Kyoto and Tokyo. They prayed to the gods for protection from sexually transmitted diseases, particularly syphilis.

The festival itself is lighthearted and fun, with country-western line dancing, rappers, drum lines and parade floats. Participants like to take pictures of themselves riding the giant wooden dildo and sucking on the ubiquitous cock-shaped lollipops. Taking part is said to increase success in business, attract a mate, boost marital satisfaction, and make childbirth easier. Now, as in the 17th century, participants also seek protection from STDs. Kanamara Matsuri, in modern times, has also become associated with HIV and AIDS awareness and fund-raising.

This year, Kanamara Matsuri would have fallen on April 3rd. It went unobserved, however, out of respect for the devastating earthquake, subsequent tsunami and nuclear concerns that struck northeastern Japan on March 11th. The city of Kawasaki is located about 400 miles from the epicenter of the disaster, and did not experience much direct damage as a result. The frivolity didn’t seem appropriate at a time of national mourning. No one knows yet whether Kanamara Matsuri will resume as normal in 2012.

  Beltane Fire Festival — Edinburgh, Scotland

In the U.K., the big public holiday that evolved from pagan spring naughtiness is the Beltane Fire Festival, held at the end of April in Edinburgh at Calton Hill. The festivities include drum circles and agricultural folk dances. It’s an orderly, entertainment-focused event, like a music fest with bonfires, with trained stewards to help safeguard public health.

This was not always so. The newspaper comic strip Arlo & Janis once addressed the hidden-in-plain-sight sexual nature of Beltane, also spelled Beltaine or known as May Day. Arlo, sitting at his computer, presumably looked up the meaning of the maypole on the Internet. He announced to Janis that she would shocked to learn what the maypole represents. In The Spells Bible, Anne-Marie Gallagher spells it out for contemporary witches: the maypole is a phallic symbol, and the floral wreaths used to crown the pole are yonic, or vulva, symbols.

To observe Beltane, Gallagher recommends the ribbon spell, the purpose of which is to attract a new lover. The spell derives from ancient ribbon games unmarried, young Celts participated in to playfully pair off once a year. They cavorted in the farm fields, woods and even ditches by the sides of roads. The purpose was to hook up in good fun, not find a spouse. Children conceived at Beltane were not considered “illegitimate.” Rather, these “merry begots” were considered gifted by the gods. The Church tried to stamp out this practice beginning in the 7th century, but never fully succeeded.

Beltane’s fires were part of the fertility rite; farmers led their livestock between two fires, symbolically increasing their fertility. Young men leaped over the fires for the same reason. The word itself may derive from Baal, a general Near Eastern term meaning “lord” applied to a number of different gods. Across many ancient cultures, a Baal figure was annually mated with the fertility goddess. He made her pregnant with his own next incarnation, then was ritually sacrificed.

In Scandinavian countries, a god named Balder is burned in effigy at Midsummer Eve, the next festival on the NeoPagan calendar. Beltane fires may recall this symbolic sacrifice, considered necessary for human, animal and crop fertility to continue. Nevada’s annual Burning Man event may be a folkloric descendant of this ritual, but is held in the late summer/early fall.

  Noli Me Tangere — Obando, the Philippines

The city of Obando in the Philippines holds a yearly festival, Noli Me Tangere, on May 17-19. Since the days of the Spanish missionaries, this three-day festival has officially been celebrated as a trio of saints' feast days. May 17 is the feast of St. Pascal Baylon, May 18 is for St. Clare and May 19 celebrates Our Lady of Salambao. This Catholic tradition has been grafted onto a much older folk dance performed by couples hoping to make babies and singles looking to find a mate. The sexy public dance has become a tourist attraction.

St. Pascal Baylon, a sixteenth-century shepherd turned lay preacher, is who male Filipinos turn to when they want to get laid — er, find a wife. Ladies pray to St. Clare to help them find a husband or have a baby. (No one, apparently, thinks it strange that neither Pascal nor Clare was married in life.) Our Lady of Salambao is a title given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her role as patroness of those who earn their living through fishing. Salambao is the Tagalog word for “fishing net.” In 1793, Mary’s image is said to have miraculous appeared in the fishing net of two brothers. The image is housed in Obando’s Church of St. Pascal Baylon.

The dance associated with the festival, a Fandango, begins in the streets, where women who want children or to find mates gyrate, sway, wave their hands and stomp to the beat of marching bands. Men, children and other women participate to increase the power of the ritual. Traditionally these marching bands would play folk music, but more and more they’re playing Filipino pop songs as well. The procession continues up to the church doors, then down the central aisle of the church itself. Closely matching one’s movements to the music’s rhythm is considered an important element of the fertility magic. The more closely the community mimics the sacred rhythms, the greater its human, fish and crop fertility will be.

Before the Spanish came to Philippines, bringing the Roman Catholic religion with them, the fertility rites were celebrated as Kasilonawan. The god Linga was worshiped with public drinking, singing and dancing officiated by a high priestess, or katalonan. The purpose of the Kasilonawan festival was expressly to ask the god to allow childless women to conceive. Spanish missionaries simply replaced Linga with Catholic saints, rather than trying to eliminate the practice as the Church attempted (and failed) to do in what is now the U.K.

Something about the human spirit seems to make us want to connect with the past and participate in rituals our ancestors took part in. Somewhere in time, we decided spring was the moment to beg whatever gods may be to let us, our animals and our plants be fruitful and multiply. Kawasaki, Edinburgh and Obando represent only three examples of this collective spring fever.


we did a unit on fertility celebrations in different cultures in one of my psych classes--it was my favorite section!!



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