Every year thousands of people descend on Kawasaki in Japan to celebrate one thing: the penis. Welcome to Kanamara Matsuri, the Festival of the Steel Phallus.
The festival dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), a day praising penises and fertility with a focus on spirituality. However, in recent years the celebrations have been used to educate people about safe-sex, while also raising funds for HIV charities.
What happens at the penis festival?
Celebrated on the first Sunday in April, during Cherry Blossom season, people carry portable penis shrines through the streets of Kawasaki, just outside of Tokyo. Mikoshi, as they are called in Japan, start and end their journey at Kanayama Shrine. There are three main floating shrines: two traditional penises (Kanamara Fune Mikoshi and the Big Kanamara Mikoshi), as well as the Elizabeth Float.
The latter is a giant pink penis shrine, donated by Tokyo drag bar Elizabeth Kaikan. Genderfluid, queer men, and trans women dress in traditional bright pink kimonos, wigs and make-up as they carry the float down the street.
This float being the star of the show is part of the reason why this festival resonates so resolutely with the LGBTI community. The expectation to have a traditional family is still strong in Japan and LGBTI people still face discrimination. At Kanamara Matsuri, everyone – straight and queer alike – are able to cut loose and embrace the sex part of their sexuality.
It’s not all parades of giant penis shrines, though. An annual radish-carving contest is held (no prizes for what they’re carving), as well as a costume competition. Proceeds from these events go to HIV charities.
The origins of the festival
The festival has its roots in both mythology and history.
The myth behind the day centers around a young woman with a demon admirer. The demon becomes jealous when she marries a human man, and so plants itself in her vagina. Unfortunately for the young man, their wedding night is ruined. When the husband tries to have sex with her, the demon bites his penis off.
The woman remarries a second man, hoping it’s just an unhappy coincidence. But when they go to bed together, the demon takes another bite, and another penis falls victim to the demon’s teeth.
Saddened they couldn’t have children, the woman visited a blacksmith and asked him to create something so strong the demon couldn’t bite through it. He forged an steel phallus. The woman inserted the steel phallus into her vagina, destroying the iron-weak demon – and restoring her fertility. The penis shrines are to commemorate the spirit of the blacksmith.
Women with teeth in their vaginas is often used as a metaphor for syphilis. The myth was likely to be a cautionary tale, also.
There’s another myth connected to the shrine and the festival. Japanese legend tells the tale of the Shinto goddess Izanami, who gave birth to a fire god. The fire child ruined her body. So, she turned to two gods of mining and blacksmiths, Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime, who healed her after the childbirth.
Kanayama Shrine then became popular with sex workers from the local tea houses. They prayed to the gods of mining and blacksmiths for protection against sexually transmitted infections. It’s these prayers that form the basis of the original festival.
What to buy at the penis festival
Of course there’s traditional food and sake, but the most popular things to eat are penis and vulva shaped candy. They also have limited edition shrine seals, the Kanayama Shrine Goshuincho.
On these pamphlets, artists fuse traditional features of religion and mythology with the male genitalia. Inside, patterns form into the shape of penises and vaginas. It might be enough to make monks at other temples blush.
— 高喜商店 (@takakisyouten) February 17, 2019
— 若宮八幡宮・金山神社（俗称かなまら様）公式 (@kanayamajinjya) February 14, 2019
Penis hats are incredibly popular too. Remember though, the festival is incredibly popular – with up to 50,000 people attending each year. All this penis memorabilia will sell out quickly, so get there quickly if you don’t want to miss out.
From carving dicks out of radishes to selling merchandise based around sexual organs, Kanamara Matsuri has its tongue firmly in its cheek. If you’re in Tokyo for cherry blossom season, why not go along for a ride.