Along the Agano river, deep within Niigata Prefecture are several small villages. Each one supposedly participates in maintaining a long religious folk tradition, found dating back to the late Edo period involving deities named Shoki-sama. During the annual Shoki Festival, each village fashions it’s own life-sized deity out of straw giving special attention to its (male) genitalia.
Upon learning about this, I had several questions. Were these local customs still upheld? And what was the significance of the phallus involved? With a brisk chill still in the air from a lingering winter, I headed out with a certain Dr T to explore these remote areas of the Japanese countryside and investigate further.
Off to Niigata
Going off a clue from a very ratty looking book Dr T had procured, we set out in our rental car aiming for the old road.
“It shouldn’t be too far from central Niigata.” Dr T advised me as we came off the motorway.” But I am just a little concerned that our shrine will be buried in a mound of snow. That’s why I brought you along.”
Wonderful. Dr T got me to catch the first train from Tokyo on a Saturday morning to go and dig out a shrine lost somewhere in the vast countryside of Niigata. I keep my thoughts to myself and take a sip of my morning Blendy coffee, sinking deeper into the passenger seat.
“I hope our map is accurate. There’s a lot of snow-covered shrines out there.” I sulk, already missing my warm bed back home.
Incidentally, Dr T is the affectionate nickname for the idiosyncratic Dr Stephen Turnbull. British historian and academic, he’s a specialist in Japanese military history and eastern religion. I had the pleasure of sitting in on his incredibly popular course “Samurai and the Sacred” back in my university days. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s a modern-day Indiana Jones, but perhaps not as athletic.
It wasn’t long before we were nearing our destination. Most other cars had vanished from the road and convenience stores proved surprisingly difficult to find.
Lining the narrow road were several prominent flags, a sharp red in contrast to the winter landscape around us, bearing the name of our deity. There was no mistaking this was the place to be today!
After parking, we wandered to the small wayside shrine hidden in a cluster of trees. Inside were three men huddled around a kerosene fire drinking sake and eating rice crackers. They paid us no attention as we stood in front of the frosted glass doors, and it wasn’t until I knocked and began sliding one open that they looked up at us.
What the heck is a Shoki anyway?
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