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Asia travel

Members welcome: all you want to know about one of Japan’s weirdest festivals

From phallus-shaped lollipops to sake that tastes like semen, here is the lowdown on the Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus, which celebrates fertility and promotes safe sex

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 10:29am

A parade of giant phallus floats, people sucking on penis-shaped lollipops, penis-themed songs, genitalia carving competitions and offerings of “testicle-vagina” rice wine sound like a scene from a dodgy X-rated movie. In fact, these are just a few of the highlights of the one-day Kanamara Matsuri festival, which sees the Japanese city of Kawasaki overrun with tributes to the male member.

“You really have to see it to believe it,” says Australian Rebecca Reece, an English-Japanese translator who has lived in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo and the country’s ninth biggest city, for almost two years. “It’s a really surreal but fun experience.”

The 31-year-old will be one among the thousands to gather at the Kanayama Shrine on April 3 to join in the phallic fun.

The festival, held each year on the first Sunday in April, may appear a garish affair to the prudish, but in fact it carries many moral messages and has roots steeped in Japanese history. Participants pray to gods for fertility, healthy childbirth, wedded bliss and protection against sexually transmitted infections.

According to Japanese legend, sometime during the Edo period of 1603 to 1867, there was a sharp-toothed demon who was angered when his love was unrequited by a beautiful woman who wed another man. Seeking revenge, he sneaked inside the woman’s vagina and bit off her newlywed’s private parts as they consummated the marriage.

When the jealous demon put in a repeat performance, leaving her second husband with nothing down below, the woman sought help from the village blacksmith. Together they concocted a plan to trick the evil spirit, forging a steel penis to break its teeth and flee her vagina for good. In commemoration of the folklore, the Kanayama Shrine was erected in the town.

Historically, the city was a popular rest point for weary travellers trekking the Toikaido – a route that linked Edo, now Tokyo, and Kyoto. The many teahouses that dotted the city were stop-off spots, and frequently doubled up as brothels. As the number of prostitutes grew, and more sexually transmitted diseases spread, the Kanayama Shrine quickly become a renowned site for sex workers to pray for protection against disease.

In 1975, the festival was launched as a way of promoting safe sex. It picked up pace in the mid-1980s, and last year organisers say more than 30,000 Japanese and foreigners – including families – flocked to the city to celebrate safe sex and humans’ reproductive organs. All funds raised go towards research into HIV and Aids.

It has also paved the way for the LGBT movement, providing them with a medium to raise awareness and express themselves freely in a sometimes conservative society. Tam Takuna, 33, who lives in Tokyo, has attended the festival for the last two years with pals. "It is an open place where people can be who they want to. It is good to see many different people enjoying themselves and to celebrate how we are all born."

Hisashi Yamamoto, 83, who has been involved with the festival since its early days, adds: “We must say thanks that we are in this world. This is what the festival is all about.”

Festivities officially kick off at noon – although the streets start filling up from before 9am – with a parade of three penises carried through the streets by a mikoshi – a portable shrine lifted by several men, which forms the main part of the festival.

First up is the steel phallus, or demon dagger, which was used to dispel the demon. It is followed by the Big Kanamara Mikoshi, which is made of wood, before the main attraction hits the streets, a giant pink phallus known affectionately as Elizabeth by locals. Elizabeth is a donation from the Tokyo drag queen club Elizabeth Kaikan, and is carried through the city by members of the transgender community. To follow the parade, Reece advises visitors to leave the shrine where they are based before noon, as the exit is blocked before the mikoshi depart.

Other spectacles include stalls selling penis-shaped candy, lollies and candles, as well as plastic glasses with penis noses, which are popular with festival-goers. Craft stalls are also dotted about where visitors can carve penises out of giant radishes. To quench the thirst, there is the aforementioned “testicle-vagina” rice wine – fear not, it’s actually a play on words – or the Kanamara Matsuri special sake, which comes with a twist. Guests eat a small dried white fish before swallowing the drink, to create a taste that is said to mimic that of semen.

“The festival is a lot of unbelievable fun but it does carry a serious message,” says Reece. “And it has become a good platform for the LGBT community to have a voice while raising money, and awareness, for Aids.”

Three insider tips to make the most of the penis festival

The free festival officially runs from 11am to 4pm, but Reece advises arriving before 9am to beat the crowds and secure a top spot.

The penis-shaped lollipops are the most popular item, so grab one early to avoid the inevitable long queues or missing out.

Visitors can take part in the parade, with kimonos being loaned for those wanting to don one and join in the fun.