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Mary King gets the ins and outs of Kawasaki' annual fertility festival

Spring is in the air, and perhaps the joys of the season in the Kanto region are nowhere more lusciously expressed than in Kawasaki Daishi, Kanagawa Prefecture, which is bracing itself for its annual phallic festival. Shinto offers more titillating tumescent thrills than most world religions, as the Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Steel Phallus) this year on Mar 31 and April Fool's Day proves.

Sexually transmitted diseases spurred the popularization of phallic symbols in some of Japan's festivals dedicated to the male member, such as this one dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). At that time, Kawasaki's "ladies of the night" prayed not only that business would be brisk, but for protection from syphilis. Come cherry blossom time, they gathered baskets of bamboo shoots and other sprouting delicacies, carried the shrine's phallic image in procession through the streets, and then sat down to a merry banquet on mats spread out on the courtyard of Kanamara Shrine.

Kawasaki mapWith the spread of syphilis now curbed, participants in the modern festival solicit donations for HIV/AIDS research. Today, the highlights of this saucy festival include transvestites parading through the town's streets carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine) with a humungous pink phallus on top. And, if that's not guaranteed to make you blush as deeply as the surrounding cherry blossoms, then the spectacle of grandmas and grandpas sucking on carnal candy and sweetmeat replicas of this stupendous phallus, is more than likely to.

Other attractions include locals carving penises out of daikon (radish), children and young women sitting astride penis-shaped seesaws for good luck and fertility blessings, as well as a seated banquet in the compound of Kanamara Jinja (aka Wakamiya Hachiman-gu shrine) where the phallic radishes are auctioned. All are welcome to take part in the festival's parade and banquet, which includes dancing and karaoke singing. Many revelers, Japanese and foreigners alike, turn out in kimono, Edo period attire or drag for this two-day event of phallic fun which is also attended by many of the area's community leaders and civic dignitaries.

Miko dancing at Karamara Shrine
Mary King

Hirohiko Nakamura, the chief priest at his family shrine says, "Whether your prayers be for prosperity, healthy offspring, a fertile marriage, wedded bliss, an uncomplicated delivery or personal health, this shrine remains the focus of community faith, as it has been for centuries. "Shinto is traditionally non-judgmental in the matter of individual sexual behavior, and my family's shrine has long served as a place of help and a refuge to those suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. What could be more natural, then, that the shrine would embrace those who are concerned with the spread of HIV and AIDS," says Nakamura.

A cock and bull story
Thirty-six year-old Australian Nick Rowthorn, who attended last year's festival with his Japanese boyfriend Yoshi, said the festival was the wildest thing he'd ever seen. "I'm really impressed to see that the Japanese don't have the same hang-ups about sex and sexuality that you generally find in the West. I just can't image a bunch of drag queens turning up for a Christian religious festival in Australia. It's great," he said, playfully licking the red-headed lollipop he'd bought from one of the stalls in the shrine's courtyard.

Religion and sex have a long history of comfortable coexistence in Japan. This is clearly implied even in the national creation myths in which the kami, or central male and female deities - Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto - are said to have stirred the primordial muck with a "heavenly jeweled spear" before creating the island of Onogoro. The couple then descended from the heavens and married, with Izanami giving birth to Japan's islands as well as its many gods.

Sucker for souvenirs
Marco Mancini

And, according to such ancient chronicles as the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) that relates the national mythology, the goddess Amenouzume no Mikoto flashed her sexual organs at the other kami, or divinities, in their cosmic abode. Curious about the resulting commotion, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu (who had plunged the world into darkness by cloistering herself in a cave), peered out from her hiding place, caught her reflection in a mirror, and was abducted from her refuge, an act that restored light to the world.

The Kanamara Festival kicks off with a Night Ceremony at the shrine on the evening of Mar 31 (6-6:20pm). On Apr 1, the festival will start again with the burning of a sacred fire at 11am. The main ceremony starts at 11:15am. Expect a full day of fun.

Getting there
From Shinagawa take a Keihin Kyuko (red) train towards Yokohama. Get off at Keikyu Kawasaki stn, go down the stairs and take a Daishi Line train three stops to Kawasaki Daishi stn. From there, walk across the street and you'll find Kanamara Shrine (Wakamiya Hachiman-gu shrine) just a few meters down on the right. From JR Kawasaki stn take the No. 23 bus for Daishi and get off at Wakamiya Hachiman-gu shrine. Contact Kanamara Shrine (Wakamiya Hachiman-gu Shrine) on Tel: 044-222-3206 or Fax: (044-233-3060).

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