There is no stronger celebration of the Japanese joystick than Kawasaki’s Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Iron Phallus). Despite smirks and giggles from Westerners, this is no Fantasy Fest: it’s an ancient tradition that serves as a celebration of (and prayer for) fertility, long marriages and healthy births, and a way to promote awareness about sexually transmitted diseases, most importantly HIV.
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The story goes that in the 1600s, during Japan’s Edo period, local prostitutes would congregate at the Kanamara Shinto shrine in Kawasaki, where they’d pray for protection against sexually transmitted diseases. A more fantastic tale lies in the fabled “vagina dentata,” or toothed vagina, which supposedly castrated several poor young men on their wedding nights. The woman cursed with the toothed vagina (most likely a metaphor for syphilis, which was common then) went to see a blacksmith, who forged her an iron dildo in order to break the teeth of her inner demon, thus protecting the penis of her future suitor. The Kanamara shrine is dedicated to the blacksmith, and over the centuries sex workers have paid pilgrimage to the shrine to seek its powers of protection.
While this festival has a deeper meaning, it’s still a penis festival—and you won’t be disappointed if that’s what you came to see (though they won't be the real deal). There are penis hats, penis puppets, penis floats, penis costumes and penis lollipops, and since nobody here shies away from sex or the sex organs, you’ll see elderly Japanese alongside young couples seeking cures for impotence and infertility. Penis icons are not in short supply, with all shapes and sizes made from iron, wood and inflatable plastic. Even the most modest among us will barely blush by the end of it all. It may be hard for outsiders to understand why the Japanese, a typically reserved people, go all out with the male sexual organ on this day, but as far as self-expression goes, this culture is all about one big release as opposed to lots of little ones.
Both men and women dress in women’s kimonos, and it’s not uncommon to see grandmothers licking penis-shaped lollipops.
The Saturday evening prior to the festival, rice treats in the shape of the yin and yang are grilled for everyone to eat. Yin represents the traditional analog of female energy, while yang represents the male. At 11am the next morning, a great bonfire is lit and the festival officially begins. After a short Shinto ceremony, dried sardines and Japanese sake are served for good fortune. At around noon, the omikoshi, a giant pink penis altar, is carried toward the Kanamara shrine just before the parade.
The bulk of Kanamara Matsuri is the afternoon parade (starting roughly at 1pm) through the nearby streets, where three huge altars with erect idols are carried by groups of worshippers dressed in pink. The footpaths are full of people who crowd around these mobile temples as the bearers chant, sing, shout and sway in worship of the yang. The vibe is that of a fun street party. Both men and women dress in women’s kimonos, and it’s not uncommon to see grandmothers licking penis-shaped lollipops. There’s an anatomically correct radish-carving contest and large wooden penises that you can mount (and pray the pictures don’t end up on the Internet). As businesslike as the culture appears at times, the Japanese have an amazing ability to laugh at themselves. As the day winds down, contestants in the radish-carving competition and participants in the costume parade are judged, followed by a feast. Proceeds from the event go toward HIV research.
While you may find a bigger phallus (15-feet long and 600 pounds) at the Hōnen Matsuri in Komaki (Penis Fertility Festival) or confuse this with the Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Man Festival), we recommend planning a visit to this forward-thinking Shinto celebration.