The penis, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, decorations, and a mikoshi parade. It is a religious festival for fertility and with the many children who attend is not an erotic or sexual celebration.
If you’re in tune with all things unique in Japan, you may have heard about the Kanamara Matsuri. It has gained international recognition in the past few years thanks to wide coverage from news media, bloggers, and YouTubers. Most online sources present the festival as another “bizarre” thing to see in Japan. But when you look at the festival more closely, it’s a lot more complicated than you might think, and simply viewing it as a “Dick Festival” isn’t doing it much justice.
In the village of Komaki, 45 minutes from the central city of Nagoya, there is a shrine devoted to the phallus. Each spring, the old and young alike come here to see an enormous wooden penis carried through the streets, to eat penis shaped sweets, and to make a penis-spirited wish to god. The tradition is thought to have begun around 1,500 years ago. A springtime celebration, the “penis festival”, or Honen-sai Matsuri, is carried out to bring fertility and a good harvest to the people.
KANAMARA MATSURI: JAPANESE PENIS FESTIVAL IN KAWASAKI
The enormous pink penis catches the light. There’s no glint of shame as it exposes itself to the crowd. It’s the centre of attention, with throngs of Japanese people pushing to get closer to the engorged phallus. In a country normally so obsessed with decorum, it’s an odd sight.
Well, it would be an odd sight anywhere else in this country, but this is the annual Japanese penis festival – the celebration of manhood that happens under the guise of a religious ceremony at a Shinto shrine. That’s right, blessed be the cocks here in the city of Kawasaki, about half an hour south of Tokyo.
Before we get to the thrust of the Japanese penis festival in Kawasaki, let’s take a step back for a second. We should pay tribute to the origins of this annual event which is officially called Kanamara Matsuri.
The shrine has been the place for people with penises in their prayers for more than four centuries. In the 1600s, this area was full of prostitutes and they would come here to ask for protection from sexually-transmitted diseases. Over time, people started coming to pray for fertility, long marriages, healthy births… and then (somehow) the penis symbology got twisted (sounds painful) to also represent a successful business and a prosperous life.
Now, back to this enormous pink phallus. It’s actually one of three that are the centrepieces of the festival and it’s not even the most important. That honour goes to the slightly smaller (but still quite well-endowed) black iron penis which is housed in a small wooden temple on sticks. As the legend goes, back in ye olde days, a sharp-toothed demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman and castrated her husband on their wedding night. The iron penis was forged by a blacksmith to break the demon’s teeth and kill it!
THE KANAMARA MATSURI PENIS FESTIVAL:
So, back to today, and the official part of the Kanamara Matsuri Festival each year in Kawasaki is the parade through the nearby streets where the three huge altars with the erect idols are carried by groups of worshippers. The footpaths are full of people who crowd around these mobile temples as the bearers chant and sing and shout and sway from side to side. There’s nothing particularly serene about this and it looks more like a Mardi Gras than a spiritual pilgrimage.
In fact, that’s the mood of the whole day. Nothing is taken too seriously. Whatever the origins of this festival, it is now one big party… just one where religion and cocks are mixed together (the Catholics don’t have a monopoly on that!).
Gongs and dongs. There’ll be one line of people waiting to pray inside the shrine right next to another line of people waiting to buy a lollipop in the shape of a penis. The traditional carving of the radishes into phallic shapes happens in one corner and in another are large wooden wangs that you can ride like a horse.
It’s all good fun and the penis festival staff (honestly, no pun intended) try to make it a fun event by encouraging the crowd to get involved. Because of the reputation Kanamara Matsuri has gathered over the years and the proximity to Tokyo, it’s extremely popular with ex-pats as well and foreigners make up a large part of the crowd.
There’s hardly room to move and you often have to push your way through all the people. But, in honour of the origins, the festival raises money for HIV research so at least it’s a good cause.
Kanamara Matsuri History:
The City of Kawasaki had some, but limited, information on the history behind the shrine and festival. Legend has it that when Shinto goddess Izanami no Mikoto gave birth to a fire god, she suffered great injuries on the lower half of her body. It’s said that Kanayamahiko-no-Kami and Kanayamahime-no-Kami, two gods enshrined at the Kanayama Shrine, healed Izanami’s injuries.
According to some sources, Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime were both originally gods of mining and blacksmiths. But because of this myth involving Izanami, those seeking help with venereal diseases, fertility, safe childbirth, and matrimonial happiness began to pray to the two gods as well.
Another tale involves a woman who had a demon living in her vagina who twice bit off the penises of her newlywed husbands. Finally, she went to a blacksmith who made her a steel penis upon which the demon broke its teeth, enabling her to live a normal life.
Beyond the myths, there’s also a historical reason behind the prayers for protection and happiness at Kanayama. The city of Kawasaki (where the shrine is located) was a stop for those who traveled along the Tokaido Road between Edo and cities in western parts of Japan. As a “pit stop” for travelers on the Tokaido, Kawasaki had “tea houses” that not only served as a rest stop for food and drink, but also as brothels where travelers could buy time with prostitutes. These prostitutes often visited the Kanayama Shrine as a way to pray for protection against venereal diseases, and it is said that they established the celebration of health and fertility at the Kanamara Matsuri.
Though there are differences in interpretation of the festival’s origins, one thing is clear: the shrine and the festival served a significant purpose for many who wished to promote good health, fertility, posterity, and happiness.
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