Japan’s Kanamara Matsuri, or the Festival of the Steel Phallus, is sexual repression that gets set aside for one joyful day of cross-dressing, penis-shaped lollipops and, of course, a few giant phalluses and is celebrated annually on the first Sunday in April, at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo.
Its origins can be traced back to an ancient Japanese legend. As the story goes, a vicious demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman after falling in love with her. Such was this entity’s jealousy that it proceeded to bite off the penises of two young men on two separate wedding nights. In the aftermath of this grisly ordeal, the woman sought help from a blacksmith who fashioned an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, which in turn led to the item’s enshrinement at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki.
It may seem strange to have a festival celebrating genitalia in Japan, given the country’s reputation for being mild-mannered, discreet and extremely private.
Though it’s not generally acceptable to discuss your sex life in public – or even admit to having one – at the Kanamara Matsuri, whole families will show up to celebrate sex, fertility and the creation of life itself.
There’s a more modern reason for Kanamara Matsuri’s popularity, too. The festival has become an outlet for certain marginalised LGBTQ groups in Japan, who often have to tone down or entirely hide their queer identities – as the infamous Japanese proverb goes, “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down”. Here, fluid gender identities and sexualities across the spectrum are celebrated, the most visible example being the group of cross-dressing men and transwomen who carry one of the portable shrines.
Sex and religion in Japan are by no means exclusive thanks to the flexibility of the Shinto, a form of worship that acknowledges and honours spirits found in nature. The Kanayama Shrine became a focal point for couples who wished to pray for fertility and good fortune in their marriage. From the 17th to the 19th century, sex workers would frequent the site to pray for either protection or cure from sexually transmitted diseases.
It was around this time that the first festivals focussing on sexual health took place at the shrine, but the tradition had fizzled out by the end of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1970 that the chief priest at the time, Hirohiko Nakamura, decided to resurrect the event, albeit on a fairly small scale, and at night. After about 40 years of this, the festival’s popularity skyrocketed when, in 2012, TV star Matsuko Deluxe – an outspoken advocate of sex positivity and LGBTQ rights – name-checked the festival. By now, it’s a fixture on the festival circuit and sees about 50,000 attendees each year.
Like many Japanese festivals, the main event is a procession of mikoshi (portable shrines). The key difference is that, in this case, the shrines contain a variety of huge phalluses, which you’ll see bobbing over the heads of the crowd as they’re carried along. The main attractions are the Kanamara Fune Mikoshi, the Big Kanamara Mikoshi and the Elizabeth Mikoshi. The first two are traditional-style floats – albeit housing huge penises, made of steel and wood respectively – and are impressive enough, but the Elizabeth Float is the uncontested star of the show.
All the mikoshi start and finish their journey at the entrance to the shrine. The round trip takes well over an hour, so you’ll have plenty of time to visit and snap a picture (after asking permission, of course).
Aside from watching the procession, you can enjoy all the traditional festival foods and activities – plus a few that you’ll only find at the Kanamara Matsuri.
On the traditional side, you’ll find delicious dishes such as yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), takoyaki (fried balls of batter with a piece of octopus inside) and the much-loved choco banana – the chocolate-dipped fruit makes the most of its already phallic shape.
The snacks exclusive to Kanamara Matsuri include penis- and vulva-shaped lollipops in various flavours. These items are probably the most popular (and Instagrammable) treat here, so be sure to buy one early in the day. If you’d rather have a drink, visit the amazake stand, where you’ll be given a small, salty fish to eat before your cup of sweet, milky amazake – apparently, the combination mimics the taste and texture of semen.