Kanamara Matsuri (otherwise known as the “Penis Festival” or “Festival of the Steel Phallus”) is an annual festival held in early April at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki. It started in 1978 and, amusingly, the festival had a much quieter existence until people began uploading YouTube videos of a huge, phallic structure being carried down the road and foreigners both in Japan and abroad caught wind of this remarkably unusual celebration. Today, about 30,000 attend the event with foreigners making up a good portion of this number.
Kanayama Shrine has long been associated with sex. It enshrines two deities which together are the gods of blacksmithing and sex, and during the Edo period prostitutes who plied their trade at the lodges along the commercial routes prayed at the shrine to protect themselves from disease.
The festival begins in earnest at 11am but the main procession takes place at midday. The three mikoshi (portable shrines) make their way down the street and past the train station before returning back to Kanayama Shrine. These mikoshi are out on display in the grounds of the shrine beforehand, but the event has become so popular that by 11am the organisers may start refusing entry if the numbers swell too much. For this reason you are advised to arrive early in the morning (ideally before 9am) when the queues for the food, sakura beer, penis emblazoned t-shirts, and penis-shaped candy are much shorter, and you can enjoy the atmosphere without being pushed to and fro. Incidentally, if you do purchase one of the larger penis-shaped lollipops, don’t be surprised if you get some camera-laden festival goers asking you if they can take your photograph while you’re sucking on the sweet…
While this all may sound lewd and a little vulgar, the festival is not some tongue-in-cheek event, but a traditional festival to pray for fertility, healthy childbirth, and safe sex, and the money raised during the event goes towards supporting research into HIV and AIDS. That said, many go in colourful costumes wearing penis and vagina face masks, and phallic-shaped candles, key rings, and other objects are sold in the shrine’s grounds.
The festival is also an opportunity to promote the LGBT community. The huge pink phallic mikoshi which invariably receives most of the media attention was donated by the Tokyo drag queen club Elizabeth Kaikan (the mikoshi is called “Elizabeth”) and is carried by members of the transgender community.
The nearest station in Kawasaki-daishi Station on the Keikyu-Daishi Line. From central Tokyo easiest access is from Shinagawa Station.
The main procession usually begins at midday but you are advised to arrive well beforehand. Further, if you want a good spot you should be waiting on the street before midday. There needs to be a clear passage for the mikoshi (especially since the street itself is not that wide) so the organisers will cordon off the pavements with rope about 10 minutes before the procession begins. If you’re on the wrong side of this then you’re going to be ushered all the way down the street. Once the procession passes, the rope comes down and you can follow along with everyone else.
Due to the festival’s popularity among foreign tourists, announcements are also made in English (to many cheers from the crowd).