Kanamara Matsuri かなまら祭り, 川崎市, 神奈川県
Early April is the height of the cherry blossom season in Japan. As the cold of winter becomes a fading memory, nature blooms and flowers open their petals, announcing in a display of wild colors, that they are ready for fecundation. For farmers, it’s the time to go out to sow their fields in the hope of a rich harvest come the autumn.
Traditionally, the arrival of spring has been associated with fertility in countries north of the tropics — leading to a great variety of celebrations of human fertility in the midst of the abundant signs of natural fertility all around.
In the West, the Easter holidays are certainly the most prominent celebration of spring with elaborately decorated eggs and the symbolic Easter Bunny, the notoriously multiplying rabbit, at the center of popular Easter folklore.
The Kanamara Matsuri at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki city, just south of Tokyo, displays a much more direct and honest approach to celebrating human sexuality. No symbolic eggs and bunnies here but the real thing. The center of attention at the festival is the human phallus — just as plain and simple as that.
The Kanamara Festival always takes place on the first Sunday in April. Kanayama Shrine is close to Kawasaki Daishi Station but the waiting line to enter the shrine is long. It pays to arrive rather early in the morning.
After entering the shrine grounds, you will see three statues of erect phalluses prepared as mikoshi (festival floats to be carried through the streets) parked under the blooming cherry trees. They all have different meanings and histories.
There is a thick, short wooden one and it’s supposedly the oldest of the three. In a way, it represents the old, true spirit of spring as the season of fertility as it has been worshipped by young couples hoping to conceive healthy children from times immemorial. As humble as it might look, that’s the one carrying the original meaning of the festivities.
Then, there is a big black one supposedly made of shiny black iron. That one relates back to another origin of the current festival in early Edo Period Japan. In the early 160’0s, the area surrounding the shrine was a pleasure quarter, a prostitution district.
A popular folk tale back then tells of a demon that would be secretly hide in the vaginas of local women and bite off the penises of their lovers. Until one lady fell in love with a blacksmith and asked him to forge a steel penis. The blacksmith inserted the metal penis into her — and the demon bit the iron and broke its teeth. Thus, the demon was defeated and never showed up again. A folk tale deeply rooted in reality.
Syphilis was the most feared sexually transmitted disease at the time and it heavily afflicted prostitutes and their customers. Local ladies of the profession prayed at the shrine to the steel penis in the hope of keeping venereal diseases at bay.
The third, largest and most outlandish of the penis mikoshi is made of pink plastic. It is named Elisabeth and arrived as a gift from a group of Tokyo Asakusa drag queens. In a way, that sculpture represents today’s festivities which started in their current form in 1977.
Today, the festival is, quite predictably, a big date on the event calendar of the Tokyo queer scene. Expect to encounter visitors of all sexual variations, some making their preferences quite clear via their outfits or attitudes.
Kawasaki is not San Francisco, however. Despite the large presence of gay people, despite the festival celebrating sexuality in general and the male organ in particular, despite the many vendors selling penis-shaped jewelry and lucky charms — and yes, despite beer being on sale from the morning on, nobody seemed to be in the mood to cross over into any over-raucous behavior. The festival is a traditional Shinto celebration dealing with sex strictly symbolically and everybody seems to accept that.
The most popular items on sale are penis-shaped lollipops in a great variety of colors, some more, some less replicating the actual thing. Girls make a great show out of sucking on the lollipops — sometimes for the benefit of the many photographers strolling the festival and trying to capture sexually charged images.
At about noon, the mikoshi parade sets out from Kanayama Shrine. Shinto priests in traditional gear lead the procession, followed by the folks carrying the three penis mikoshi.
Behind the mikoshi, anybody can join the parade and thousands do. Traditional Japanese kimono are available for rent at Kanayama Shrine — and many people following the parade don them. A few wear fake glasses attached to a rubber penis covering their noses, others have penis-shaped air-balloons sticking out of their pants. Anything goes, except for showing the real thing, of course.
The parade usually ends at Kawasaki Daishi Park. It’s a large open space and the parade participants congregate in one small corner. There are more booths here, selling penis-shaped memorabilia. The stall offering genitalia-themed lollipops here offers King and Queen candy — sugared replicas of male and female genitalia to lick, suck and to pose for photos with.
Kawasaki Daishi Temple
While parts of the festivities continue as more or less private parties around the vendor stalls at Kawasaki Daishi Park, many visitors also enter the sprawling grounds of Kawasaki Daishi Temple with its 5-storey pagoda, multiple historical sub-temples and a generous sprinkling of blooming cherry trees. Food and drink vendors are present here as well and there is no shortage of tables and benches.
Ancient Buddhist rites are performed within the main temple, the monks’ chanting wafting through the temple grounds. The atmosphere is relaxed and easy-going. Certainly a respite after the extremely crowded Kanayama Shrine.
Later at the Kanayama Shrine
The line to enter Kanayama Shrine continues to be long well into the afternoon. After the end of the parade, concerts are staged at the shrine. The music ranges from traditional Japanese to decidedly Western. Anything goes. The penis lollipop stall will close once it sells out. The beer stalls last a lot longer.
Kanayama Shrine / Kanamara Festival on twitter (in Japanese)
Kawasaki Daishi Temple website (in English)
First Sunday in April, gates at Kanayama Shrine open at about 9am.