For over three hundred years, the first Sunday in April has been a day for community celebration, family fun and dancing in the streets of Kawasaki City. It started back in the Edo era (1603-1867) when Kawasaki was a stop on the main Tokaido road between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. Local prostitutes used to come to Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine to pray for protection from sexually transmitted diseases and success in business.
Shinto worshippers believe that gods have other things to do than just listen to humans all the time. You have to get their attention, and the good-time girls of Kawasaki thought up an attention-grabber too powerful for even the gods to ignore. In spring, when the weather got warmer and flowers began to bloom, they arranged a parade through the streets to the shrine. It was led by a group of men carrying a huge model penis. The ladies followed, carrying baskets of bamboo shoots and other sprouting vegetables, and everyone sat down to a picnic banquet in the grounds of the shrine. The Kanamara (Iron Penis) Matsuri was born.
An earlier local legend told of a beautiful girl plagued by a demon with sharp teeth, that hid in her vagina and castrated two unfortunate grooms on their wedding night. The shrine, one of a host of Hachimangu shrines across Japan, honoured the god of samurai, with his association with iron and swords: so a cunning blacksmith (a monk, in some versions of the tale) made an iron penis there and slid it inside the girl. This broke the demon’s teeth, forcing it to slink away, leaving its victim in peace to enjoy her third wedding night.
Wakamiya Hachimangu has built up a reputation for enhancing fertility. An iron phallus over three feet long is still enshrined there. It is paraded through the streets with drums, prayers and chanting. A ten-foot-tall pink version is also borne aloft in procession, gift of a drag queen club from Tokyo.
Nowadays syphilis no longer threatens prostitutes and their clients, but the Festival still thrives. Fertility and sex are seen as a vital part of community well-being and hence as contributors to the public good. Lovers of all persuasions, parents, would-be parents, grandparents and children enter into the spirit of a jolly, non-prurient public event where you can have your photo taken astride a huge wooden penis, or licking an iron version that’s taller than the average three-year-old. Kanamara Matsuri raises money for research into HIV and AIDS. It’s also become a byword for good luck with those who want their unions to be fertile and harmonious, a popular event in the gay, lesbian and transvestite calendar, and a merchandising opportunity for vendors of penis-shaped candies, makers of novelty gifts and artists selling their prints and postcards. Competitive vegetable carving is just one of its many attractions.
Quite a few shrines celebrate another fertility festival, Honen Matsuri, in March. Tagata Jinja near Nagoya parades a 13-foot phallus carved from Japanese cypress, in a costumed procession re-creating an ancient local ritual. There are vagina festivals, too, like the Hime-no-miya festival held at Ogata shrine on the Sunday before the Tagata Jinja festival. Children carry a vagina in procession to the shrine in the morning, followed later in the day by men carrying a much larger model. Once again it’s an occasion for rude jokes, drinks and snacks, but some locals swear that the festival still works as it did centuries ago, blessing those who attend and pray with children. In a country where the birthrate is in free-fall, that’s a strong reason to preserve these ancient customs.
If you’re up for a bit of rude, raucous communal fun, Kanamara Matsuri fits the bill to perfection. You too could find yourself on YouTube, sitting on a giant wooden penis, sucking a phallic lollipop, with your other arm round a beaming Japanese grandmother holding a giant daikon radish carved into a shape that would make Barbara Windsor giggle and Blackadder blush.