Japan’s Kanamara Matsuri: The Penis Festival

The first Sunday in April marks the celebration of the Shinto fertility festival, the Kanamara Matsuri or the “Festival of the Steel Phallus.” Known colloquially as the “Penis Festival”, these festivities celebrate just that: the power of the humble penis. And it is an event that is gaining increasing popularity, especially among foreign visitors, each year.

The 2015 Penis Festival will take place on Sunday, 5 April.

So you’re probably wondering why the Japanese celebrate the “steel phallus.” Well, legend has it that sometime back in the Edo period (1603-1867), there was a sharp-toothed demon who fell in love with a beautiful woman. The woman, however, didn’t return the demon’s affection and decided to marry another man. Angering the demon, he inhabited the woman’s vagina before their wedding night and when they tried to consummate the marriage, the demon bit off the groom’s penis with his razor sharp teeth.

When the woman remarried, the jealous demon once again made his feelings clear by biting off her second husband’s penis. Deciding that enough was enough, the upset villagers concocted a plan to trick the demon. A local blacksmith forged a steel phallus and upon its insertion, the demon’s teeth were broken and he left the woman’s vagina for good.

Sometime thereafter the legend was commemorated by way of the Kanamara Matsuri and the enshrinement of the actual steel phallus at Kanayama Shrine, constructed to honor Kanayama Hikonokami and Kanayama Himenokami, the Shinto deities of childbirth and lower abdomen health.

The Kanayama Shrine then became renowned as a site for sex workers to pray for protection against STDs. Nowadays the shrine is said to aid fertility and is often visited by married couples hoping to start a family. The festival itself has also become popular with the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

They have come up with additional monkeys at this shrine.

Five Wise Monkeys at Kanayama Shrine, Kanagawa, Japan

So what happens at the festival?

Well, imagine a whole lot of items and activities dedicated to the male sex organ.

First you are welcomed to the shrine with some festival-appropriate signage.

Entrance to Kanayama Shrine

Along with food and drink vendors like any typical Japanese festival, there are also stalls selling penis-themed souvenirs including key chains, trinkets, pens, toys and chocolates.

Penis-themed merchandise

Penis-themed merchandise

Penis-themed merchandise

Or how about a penis candle?

Penis-shaped candles

Or maybe a pair of glasses with a penis nose attached?

Penis nose glasses

These visitors walked around asking if anyone had a tissue!

Penis nose glasses

The most popular item would have to be the penis (and vagina) shaped lollipops. Make sure you go earlier to get one though. They sell out by early afternoon!

Penis-shaped lollipops

Just take a look at the crowds trying to get their hands on one!

Crowds at Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

Penis-shaped lollipops

Penis-shaped lollipops

Vagina-shaped lollipops

And if you’re wondering whether to open your wallet, all the proceeds from items sold go to AIDS research.

There are plenty of opportunities to pose with other phallic items too.

Penis posing, Kanamara Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

Give this guy a small tip for a photo and he’ll show his appreciation.

Penis mascot at Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

How about a “ride”?

Penis ride at Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

Or a bottle of “testicle-vagina” rice wine? The bottle of sake that the woman is holding here is sold at the festival as a kind of play on words with the characters used for this “Kingyoku/Banko Happy Set” (as Japanese kanji characters can carry different pronunciations and meaning depending on context). While the first word could be taken to mean “testicles”, it’s actually in reference to the expression kin-gyoku ryouen, meaning “flawless jewel.” And while the second could be mistaken for “vagina”, it’s referring to the expression ban-ko fu-eki, portraying a permanent state of goodness or quality.

Penis posing, Kanamara Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

If you can’t wait to drink your sake, then the free tasting from early afternoon might be up your alley. But of course there is a Kanamara Matsuri twist! You eat a small dried fish before swallowing the amazake (sweet sake). Why? The sweet cloudy white sake mixed with the salty fishiness of the dried fish is said to mimic both the look and taste of semen!

Amazake tasting, Kanamara Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

Or maybe you’d like to try your hand at carving a penis out of a radish?

Penis radish carving

Penis radish carving, Kanamara Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

Perhaps the highlight of the festival are the three large phallic portable shrines (mikoshi) that are carried throughout the streets in a parade from around midday. There’s the “Kanamara Fune Mikoshi” – a steel penis in a ship – which represents the steel phallus that the woman used to dispel the demon…

Kanamara Fune "Ship" Mikoshi, Kanamara Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

The “Big Kanamara Mikoshi” made of wood… (here they are carrying out a Shinto ritual in order to “transfer” the Gods from the shrine to the portable one to be carried through the streets, and to bless/purify it).

Big Kanamara Mikoshi made of wood

And then the standout pink penis mikoshi known as “Elizabeth” which was donated to the festival by Tokyo drag queen club Elizabeth Kaikan.

Pink Penis Mikoshi "Elizabeth", Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

“Elizabeth” is famously carried through the streets by trans-gender/cross-dressing festival participants.

Trans-gender festival participants with Pink Penis Mikoshi "Elizabeth", Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

It was a very windy day and “Elizabeth” took on a precarious lean. You can imagine how it sounded to have people in the crowd start screaming “The penis is falling!”

Pink Penis Mikoshi "Elizabeth", Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

The portable shrines are carried throughout the streets for around an hour and a half before being returned to the shrine so there are plenty of opportunities to take pictures with them both before and after, although the large crowds can make them difficult to get to, especially around midday before the parade.

If you wish to go out onto the streets to follow the parade, make sure you get out of the shrine before 12 as they block off the exit right before the mikoshi leave and it becomes so cramped in there that you literally can’t move. Otherwise, you can follow the mikoshi from a distance after they leave and the exit clears. Anyone can participate in the parade, and the shrine actually loans out kimonos to anyone wanting to don one and join in.

Be sure to also wander the festival grounds to take in some of the other cultural displays.

Shinto ritual, Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

Karate display, Kanamara Matsuri, Kanagawa, Japan

And if you are wanting to get pregnant, then you can take advantage of being at one of the last remaining fertility shrines and pray to be blessed with child.

Penis statue at Kanayama Fertility Shrine

It may appear to be an outlandish display of sexuality (and in many ways it does make Western culture seem quite prudish), but many would argue that the openness of the festival is a healthy one which celebrates the ability to reproduce. In fact, many Japanese visit the festival with their children and happily go about giving them a penis lollipop or propping their babies up on a phallus for a picture without “sexualizing” it in any way. I even passed by a family who were buying penis candles together, the children contemplating with the utmost seriousness which color would look best in their rooms.

It is also a place where people of any sexuality are welcomed and the festival exudes a kind of acceptance that I haven’t seen so often in Japan, where ideas of homosexuality and sex change are often ignored and/or repressed as “not the done thing” by society at large.

So why not experience something you don’t see everyday and embrace sexuality, whatever your preference, by celebrating the life-creating male sex organ.

When: First Sunday in April (this year: April 5th 2015).

Where: Kanayama Shrine on the grounds of Wakamiya Hachimangu Temple, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, Japan.

Time: 11am to around 4pm (arrive by 10am if you want to wander around before the bulk of the crowds). The parade takes place from around 12:00-13:30. Other activities conclude around the same time, although the stalls remain open and phallus items are around for more picture taking.

Access: Kawasaki-Daishi train station on the Keikyu Daishi Line. Take the south exit. Upon exiting, you’ll see a Sunkus convenience store across the road. Take the street to the right and the shrine is just a minute or so on foot on the right hand side. Just follow the crowds.

From Shinagawa (Tokyo), take the Keikyu Main Line to Keikyu Kawasaki (around 10 mins on the Rapid Ltd. Exp. or around 25 mins on the local service) and change to the Keikyu Daishi Line (5 mins). Total fare ¥240.

Entry: Free.

Jessica Korteman is an Australian travel writer, based in Tokyo, Japan. Never without a pen and paper, you’ll most often find her delving into the world of festivals and culture.

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  • Kar

    Very useful info. Thanks

    • http://notesofnomads.com/ Jessica – Notes of Nomads

      Thanks Kar. Will you be attending the festival this year?

  • Michelle A. Todd

    hi! I live in Iwakuni and plan on attending this years festival. By chance can you name a good hotel in close proximity?

    • http://notesofnomads.com/ Jessica – Notes of Nomads

      Hi Michelle, unfortunately I can’t. When I went last time I was living in Tokyo so just did a day trip.

      If anyone has any recommendations for Michelle, please chime in.

      • Michelle A. Todd

        Thank you for the reply! However I have since found a hotel in Yokohama! I will be busing to the shrine from there!!!!

        • http://notesofnomads.com/ Jessica – Notes of Nomads

          Oh, great! Have a wonderful time! Might see you there!

          • Michelle A. Todd

            most likely, my husband sticks out like a sore thumb at Japanese festivals!

            • http://notesofnomads.com/ Jessica – Notes of Nomads

              Maybe not at this one. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of foreigners now officially outnumbers Japanese attendees! Haha

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  • John Dugan

    Celebrating the penis is a very fine idea, but not just once a year: men can do this daily by using a superior penis health cream (health professionals recommend Man1 Man Oil) to help with penis odor, dry or flaky skin, redness, loss of sensation, etc.

  • badsha

    This is considered to be one of the best fesTival in the world which provide all type of facilities to the human kind just like humanity, cooperative manners,and the sexual feeling. BADSHA

  • badsha

    This is considered to be the one of the best festival which provide to the human being with all the facilities
    like relationship ,humanity, cooperation, and sexual feelings…..BADSHA

  • http://www.alainsojourner.com AlainSojourner

    I think I’m gonna LOVE this festival! LOL…
    And who knows, it might be my favorite, too! Hahahaha…

    • http://notesofnomads.com Jessica Korteman

      It’s a favourite of many, Alain! ;) Are you going to attend this year?

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  • http://www.bonzablogger.wordpress.com Bruce Rouse

    Hi Jessica; boy did this post catch me by surprise. I wonder that the comments are so few. I read it, checked the piccy’s on the way and then sat there for while kind of wondering a little. Two things came to mind, well more than that but the two are; Now no-one can say ‘only in America'; and the other; how many people actually go just to watch the lollipops get eaten?
    What were your words above? Makes us Aussies look prudish?
    Sure does.
    Thanks for a very different glimpse into the life of some Japanese folks. Bruce

    • http://notesofnomads.com Jessica Korteman

      Hi Bruce!

      Thanks so much for commenting! Of all the things I have written, who would have thought readers would be quiet on this one hahaha

      And to answer your question, I think a sizeable amount of people do go just to eat the lollipops and watch them being eaten hahaha

      It’s certainly an interesting day out!

      We’re in your neck of the woods right now. Well, relatively. Back in Victoria for a few weeks. Hope you’re well!

  • http://www.timetravelturtle.com/ Turtle

    Oh no! I was at the festival the other week as well but didn’t know you were going to be there. We probably walked past each other and didn’t even realise. From looking at your photos, we can’t have been too far apart.
    It was pretty crazy – and absolutely packed. But really interesting…

    • http://notesofnomads.com Jessica Korteman

      I know! I just saw your post before! It’s a shame we didn’t see each other. It would have been nice to meet you. Are you still in Japan?

      • http://www.timetravelturtle.com/ Turtle

        Yeah, I’ll probably be here for another couple of weeks but I’ve headed south now, doing the sites around Kansai. What a pity we didn’t meet up!

        • http://notesofnomads.com Jessica Korteman

          It’s a shame we missed each other! Hopefully we’ll catch you somewhere else in the world. We’ll be heading on our next RTW trip from June, so who knows! In the meantime, we’ll enjoy your 30 days of Japanese food posts while we can still actually go out and buy the stuff when you make us hungry! Have a great time in Kansai! Amazing food there too :)