Stephen Turnbull plays whack-a-mole with willies
In 2005 a Japanese planning expert called Shigeru Ito prepared for his Prime Minister a report entitled Ugly Japan.
It listed the worst examples of towns that had been destroyed by ruthless development since the 1960s, and in third place stood a decayed and rusting spa town called Kinugawa. So ugly was its accumulation of high-rise hotels around a once picturesque and now invisible gorge that people had simply stopped going there.
The town has experienced something of a revival, and although this article is not subtitled ‘a hundred things to do on a wet Saturday afternoon in Kinugawa’, any jaded tourists who have tired of Nikko’s World Heritage sites could do a lot worse than hop on a train and make their way there, because among other delights this run-down tourist trap possesses one of Japan’s most entertaining hihokan
The word hihokan is usually translated as ‘sex museum’, although most are best described as indoor sexual theme parks. Imagine that an anthropological collection has been bought by the London Dungeon and put on show there by the owner of a strip club with a degree in engineering and a penchant for voyeurism. The result would be the hihokan: a garish combination of serious museum and soft pornography in a bizarre and often haphazard blend.
The first such establishment opened in Ise in 1972 and apparently included live performances of horses copulating. Live sex in any form is not now on offer, but most hihokan still provide life-sized tableaux involving Japanese deities, characters from history and film stars, all engaged in sexual activity. Some scenes are animatronic, and there was obviously a factory somewhere that once churned them out, because identical set-pieces may be seen at several sites. The famous movie scene where Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blows up may be recreated at Koriyama by pressing a button and in Atami by vigorously cranking a handle. At Kinugawa the lascivious priest Dokyo, exiled for loving an empress and posthumously deified as a god of sex, experiences a mechanical erection while saying his prayers. To add to the religious theme at Atami there is a plastic statue of the goddess Kannon who is scantily clad and holding a large phallus. Visitors are invited to throw a coin into the lotus in which she stands as a prayer to obtain love.
Yet even the most ridiculous hihokan have museum sections where one might study votive sexual items, erotic shunga prints and ancient sexual aids together with copies of sacred phalluses from famous shrines, some of which are otherwise very difficult to access. For example, Kinugawa Hihokan owns a copy of the two large ones that once stood outside a shrine on the road from Utsunomiya to Nikko but have since disappeared, so this is the only place where one might now appreciate them.
The more serious variety of sex museums makes no attempt to be sensational and instead let their visitors supply the sensationalism through their own reactions to the objects on display. The Taga Shrine Sex Museum in Uwajima is featured in all popular guidebooks about Japan but has a serious purpose that is somewhat overwhelmed by the supposedly 50,000 items it owns. There are so many pictures that some are even displayed on the ceiling. Another interesting sex museum is in Utsunomiya. There is a wide collection of objects including a large phallus once carried at the famous Tagata Shrine Festival. The only note of real sensationalism is the entrance hall which is made using fibre glass into a reproduction of the nearby female rock called the Gozeniwa, a place whose goddess is much venerated by women seeking help to conceive. Its reproduction as the entrance porch makes visitors feel that they are walking into a huge vagina.
Places like Taga and Utsunomiya still appear to be thriving, but it is interesting to note that in an age when uncensored shunga prints can easily be bought and phallic festivals proliferate, the sexual theme park variety of hihokan has gone into a rapid decline. Sex may be everywhere, but it is no longer sought in a hihokan. In a 1981 book Kyoji Kokonoe described eleven places known to him. Since then, the ones he listed at Numazu, Ise, Beppu, Yumoto, Numata, Shodo Island and on Hokkaido have all closed their doors. It is rumoured that the one at Isawa Onsen may be facing closure, and in a conversation with the owners of the Kinugawa Hihokan it was explained that they too are facing financial difficulties. Maintenance of the animatronic features is costly, and with a decline in visitor numbers an end to the venture may have to be considered.
There is a hihokan at Ureshino in Saga, and having been reliably informed that it was due to shut this year I took the opportunity for a visit late in 2013. From the bus, it looked quite decrepit and weeds were already growing out of the roof. I had lunch next door to build my strength up – I always make it a rule never to visit a sex museum on an empty stomach. Perhaps one clue towards its decline is the admission fee of 1500 yen. That worked out at about £12 and may explain why I was the only visitor that entire afternoon.
It was money well spent. At Ureshino the usual electrically-operated mannequins do naughty things, or rather should
do naughty things because one of the deficiencies brought on by the impending closure were a number of mechanical failures, some of which were unintentionally hilarious. Superman, who has sexual intercourse in mid-air, worked perfectly, but the centrepiece of the hihokan was not so fortunate. It is in an enormous hall accessed first from a balcony. This triggers the action automatically and on descending the staircase you are treated to an all-singing and all-dancing Roman orgy complete with lights, music and fountains. It reminded me of the party scene in Great Gatsby
but done by shop dummies in dodgy wigs, whose limbs hung at an odd angle so that it looked as though they had all suffered a stroke. To see satyrs trying to embrace nymphs and missing completely simply because they had fallen out of alignment was the best bit of the day.
By the time you read this the Ureshino Hihokan and its orgy may have gone forever. The Atami Hihokan may well survive because it is in a popular seaside resort, but in most cases the sex museums have become casualties of Japan’s economic decline in just the same way that the economic boom once led to their proliferation. Photographs of the contents and premises of most of Japan’s hih?kan
, including ones that are now closed, may be found in a popular illustrated book edited by Ryuji Shui called I (heart) Hihokan
(Tokyo, 2009). Visitors who choose to spend their vacations in hot spring resorts that are themselves in recession are dissuaded from entering hihokan because of the high admission charges and the obvious signs of neglect. They are missing a treat. Where else can you play ‘Whack the Mole’ where the pop-up moles have been replaced by erect penises?
A hihokan is an ironic delight as a kitsch treasure house of booming, pre-decline and innocent Japan during the 1970s, and therein lies a clue to their passing. A newly-opened sex museum must have been an unbelievable sight: it was high-tech, colourful and daring, and most importantly, at a time when magazine photographs were rigorously censored, it allowed access to an otherwise unattainable world of visual erotica. Now through the spread of the internet all is freely available at the click of a mouse. This is the new world within which the Japanese sex museums have become a quaint and decaying curiosity, an antiquarian exhibit worthy of display within their own premises.