Kanamara Matsuri is one of Japan’s quirkier festivals. Translated to English, it means: “festival of the steel phallus”. I’m sure you can guess what I’m driving at here; Kanamara Matsuri is the infamous penis festival held annually in Kawasaki. Did I pique your interest? Now read all about my experience of the 2017 festival.
Revelers at the Festival
A Penis Festival?
You read it right my friend. A festival. For penises. I’m sure this has raised more questions than it’s answered, read on to discover more.
Banishing the Demon
Many years ago, a demon fell in love with a beautiful woman. Sadly for him, it was unrequited, with the woman instead falling in love with a human man. In a fit of jealous rage, the demon, owner of a set of razor sharp teeth, entered the woman’s vagina. As you do. On the wedding night, the newlyweds did as most newlyweds do, and tried to consummate their union. At this point, the demon bit the hapless grooms appendage off. Not a great start to a marriage; the man left, although eventually the woman fell in love and married again. Unfortunately for her, those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, with her second husband suffering the fate of the first. Understandably upset at her predicament, she sought the assistance of a local blacksmith, who fashioned her a phallus made of steel, which she promptly inserted, smashing the teeth of the vengeful demon, causing him to leave her for good. Phew. The phallus was revered for its, um, powers, and subsequently enshrined at Kanayama Shrine, Kawasaki.
An association like this certainly doesn’t disappear, and Kanayama has been celebrated in years past by sex workers who would pray for freedom from STD’s. It’s popular now with couples hoping to be blessed with children.
Again, Penis Festival?
In 1969, the first Kanamara Matsuri was celebrated, and today funds raised are donated to HIV and AIDS research.
The history is certainly entertaining, and the cause worthy, but what’s it like to go to a festival celebrating genitals? Pretty darn fun. First off, it’s advisable to get there early; the festival starts at 11am, but it’s already packed out by 9am! Wander the modest grounds of Kanayama Shrine, only a short walk from Kawasaki Daishi station. There are vendors selling clothing, jewelry, gifts, stickers, and well, everything penis-shaped. I got a cute pink t-shirt with a smiling penis, as well as a more official looking one. One of the most popular wares is the candy, penis and vagina shaped. This sells out fast so if you want some, get in there quick. You can also purchase omamori (lucky charms) from the shrine office; penis votives, ema boards, and car charms are among their offerings.
Aside from entertainment, food, and vendors at the shrine, there’s also a parade through the town, which we will get to later.
Mikoshi are portable shrines, and Kanamara Matsuri has three of them. Prior to the parade, a Shinto ritual is performed to transfer the Gods from the main shrine to the Mikoshi, so they can join in the festivities. Let’s look at each Mikoshi.
The first is Kanamara Fune Mikoshi, a steel phallus contained within a “ship” that pays homage to the original steel penis of Kanayama. The second is the Big Kanamara Mikoshi, fashioned from wood, and the third, and probably most recognizable, is Elizabeth. Elizabeth is the largest of the three, a bright pink penis donated many years back by famous Tokyo drag club Elizabeth Kaikan. Elizabeth is traditionally carried through the town by men in drag, all of whom will happily pose with you for pictures.
The parade through the town starts at 1pm, and is a lively event with lots of singing, dancing, and wiggling of the penises. The crowd are cheerful and friendly, and it seems like the whole town gets involved! Follow the procession, and watch the main attraction at a local park. You’ll see lots of people in penis-themed clothing, as well as locals dressed in traditional ware. The festival is about fertility too, so expect to see Shinto blessings for a productive spring. At the park, Elizabeth is left and covered, whilst Kanamara Fune and Big Kanamara are returned to Kanayama, in another parade with dancing and singing.
The festival officially lasts until 4pm, but winds down somewhat post parade. I recommend either leaving early to avoid being crushed by the crowd, or way after, for the same reason. I opted to leave early, but only because I had a flight to catch. Post parade enjoy more food, drinks, and penises!
By Western standards, it seems completely insane and vulgar, but in reality it’s a welcoming festival that can be attended by all ages. I did in fact see many children, all of whom seemed to be having a great time with their parents. I also love the inclusion. It’s popular with the LGBTQ community, and fosters an open and accepting atmosphere, something we could certainly do with more of. My final thoughts are this; it’s a fun and unusual festival, funds go to a great cause, and I’ll definitely be at the 2018 celebrations. See you there?
Elizabeth with her escorts
Me with some themed revelers