Kanamara Matsuri: A unique celebration of the pink of spring

Japan is host to a variety of annual festivals, often seasonally driven, and often associated with Shinto shrines. These festivals usually involve music, dancing, fair food and portable shrines that are paraded through the local neighborhood.

One of the more unusual of these annual festivals takes place on the first Sunday of April (in 2017: April 2; in 2018: April 1) at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki–a timing that is usually at the height of the cherry blossom season. It could be said that this festival truly exposes the fact that Japanese will use any excuse to party.

For readers in or near Tokyo, I recommend that you try to get there.

Known as the Kanamara Matsuri, the principal object of the festival these days is a huge pink phallus, affectionately known as “Elizabeth”, housed in one of the portable shrines carried through the neighborhood as part of the festival.

The word “Kanamara” means “metal penis” and, indeed, among the objects of worship at the shrine is an iron penis mounted on an anvil.

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As you would expect, there is a story here.

While the shrine has a long history as a shrine for blacksmiths and other metal workers, during the Edo Period (1603-1868) another legend came to be associated with the shrine that has resulted in the Kanamara Matsuri.

According to the legend, a demon with sharp teeth fell for a lovely maiden. Not only did the maiden fail to reciprocate his affection, she married another man. The demon was so angered that he occupied her vagina and used his sharp teeth to dismember the husband when he tried to consummate the marriage. The poor woman later remarried, only to have the same thing happen to her second husband.  Desperate, she consulted the local priest, who advised her to have a blacksmith forge a metal penis that could break the demon’s teeth and drive him away. This miracle item is the one mounted on an anvil and enshrined as a treasure of Kanayama Shrine.

Based on the fame of this item, Kanayama Shrine became a place where prostitutes would come to pray for protection against STDs (one variation of the legend is that the sharp-toothed demon that took out the husbands was in fact syphilis). Since the shrine is not far from Kawasaki-juku, one of the 53 post towns along the Tokaido Road between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) during the Edo Period, presumably it was a handy location for prostitutes to pray for good health.

In the 1980s, when the most concerning STD was HIV/AIDS, the shrine also became popular as a place for LGBT supplicants to pray for protection.  The shrine is also a popular spot for those with infertility or sexual dysfunction.

The festival is a relatively modern one, having started in 1969. Like many festivals, there are booths selling food and drink. There are also booths selling souvenirs of the festival, including t-shirts and various phallic objects.  Among the most popular are penis-shaped suckers and Groucho Marx-style plastic eyeglasses wth a rubbery penis replacing the Groucho nose. The man in the photo below chose to wear his glasses upside down with the penis on his forehead.  Draw your own conclusions.

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Modern music is performed live from the shrine’s stage to contribute to the festive atmosphere.

But this is a shrine festival, so there is a religious element as well. A priest and acolytes complete a ceremony transferring the gods of the shrine to the penis-shaped portable shrines before they embark on their tour of the neighborhood. In addition to pink Elizabeth–donated to the shrine many years ago by a well-known Tokyo drag queen professionally known as Elizabeth Kaikan–there is an older, but slightly smaller, black penis portable shrine and another portable shrine containing a “kanamara” and a large tree trunk. Elizabeth (minus the white cloth, which was protecting it from the rain and was removed after the priest’s blessing was completed) is carried largely by transgender and cross-dressing celebrants, further contributing to the festive atmosphere.

Other phallic objects also feature heavily in both the festivities and the life of the shrine. One popular activity is carving daikon radishes into penis and vagina shapes. Interestingly, the most enthusiastic carvers seemed to be local housewives and grannies.

The e-ma (votive plaques) of the shrine, on which supplicants can write prayers for the gods, contain a stylized drawing of a penis. Together with their prayers, some supplicants have drawn elaborate, if somewhat pornographic, pictures.

In the structure housing the e-ma, there is also a large e-ma with a variant of the traditional three monkeys–adding a couple more thematically-appropriate “thou shalt nots”.

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Phallic objects seem to be everywhere in the shrine buildings and shrine grounds.  One wonders if the shrine’s original blacksmith god might not be just a little bit jealous.

But those who worship here offer prayers to all the gods.  I noticed this “shrine maiden” arriving earlier in the day dressed in a French maid’s costume and pulling a wheelie bag.

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Because of the large crowd, the parade of the portable shrines does not proceed in a circuit back to the shrine.  Instead it ends at a park near the station, where festivities and photo ops continue.  Only at the end of the day (around 4 pm) are the portable shrines returned to Kanayama Shrine.

Many Japanese festivals survive because of the way their practices are handed down from generation to generation, keeping traditions alive.  The crowd at this festival were different.  Of course the theme of this festival is titillating and it draws a significant crowd of foreigners who want to watch, or join in, the festivities.  But there was also a large crowd of local/Japanese participants and onlookers, many of whom were “non-traditional”.  They seemed to be here to create new traditions and celebrate differences, diversity and the weird and wonderful of the world.

The details:

Kanamara Shrine is located about a 3 minute walk from Kawasaki Daishi station (about a 20 minute walk from Kawasaki station).  Follow the crowds and expect a long wait to get into the shrine ground unless you arrive early.

The festival begins at 10:15 and finishes by 4:30.  The portable shrine parade begins around noon.

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