A brief history
More formally known as the Festival of the Steel Phallus, Kanamara Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s more out-there celebrations, and one that’s had a history that stretches back to the seventeenth century. Historically, the Kanayama Shrine was frequented by sex workers, who prayed for protection from sexually transmitted diseases, and people hoping to be blessed with fertility and to improve their love lives.
The official festival was first hosted in 1969 as a way to celebrate sex and the LGBTQ community, as well as raise money for charity. Over the past half century, it’s become one of the nation’s most popular events on the festival calendar.
When and where
The event is held on the first Sunday of April. A majority of the event’s celebrations are held in and around the Kanayama Shrine grounds in the city of Kawasaki, about 45 minutes to an hour south of the central suburbs of Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Honestly, the festival is a little bit of a sensory overload, but that’s what makes it so much fun. When you first get to the shrine, the juxtaposition of men, women and children all sucking penis-shaped candies, while lining up to pray at the entrance of Kanayama Shrine will take a moment to sink in.
Be sure to get to the site by mid-morning, or at least before noon to nab a spot by the road that passes by the shrine grounds. Along this main road, you’ll be privy to a festival procession unlike anything you’ve seen before. At midday, men and women in traditional garments, as well as drag queens and children make their way down the nearby streets carrying floats and portable shrines known as ‘mikoshi’.
The main ‘mikoshis’ to keep a lookout for are the ‘Kanamara Fune Mikoshi’, the ‘Big Kanamara Mikoshi’ and the strangely named ‘Elizabeth’ float. ‘Kanamara Fune Mikoshi’ and the ‘Big Kanamara Mikoshi’ are traditional style floats, both of which house large penis sculptures. ‘Kanamara Fune’ features a steel penis, while ‘Big Kanamara’ is made of wood.
‘Elizabeth’ is arguably the star of the show as its towering pink phallus is impossible to miss. It is donated to the event by the famous local drag queen club, Elizabeth Kaikan. A celebration of queer culture, this two meter high float is carried through the streets by an eclectic collection of drag queens, gay identities and gender non-confirming festival participants. The shrines begin and finish their journey at the entrance of the shrine, offering plenty of time to visit and snap a picture with all participants before and after the parade.
What to eat
The number one menu item you’ll find at the festival is the hard candy penis and vagina shaped lollypops. Many stalls offer a selection of different colours, sizes and shapes (from the super realistic to the more cartoonish varieties), meaning that you’ll find one to suit all tastes. It’s recommended that if you see a lollypop that tickles your fancy, get it early because they’re ridiculously popular and tend to sell out.
If you want something a little boozier, taste the ‘vagina testicle sake’. Don’t worry it doesn’t contain anything unsavoury, its title is just a play on the kanji characters that make up its name. For something a little more ‘realistic’, visit the amazake (sweet milky sake) stand; patrons are required to eat a small dried fish before knocking back a shot of sake, which is said to mimic the texture and taste of semen.
For dessert, pop by the candied banana stands. A typical festival favourite across the nation, the chocolate bananas here are shaped to look like, yep you guessed it, penises. There’s also a large selection of vendors selling non-sexual festival foods, including yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), okonomiyaki (a grilled savoury pancake), takoyaki (a savoury, ball-shaped, baked snack) and everything in between.
How to get there
The best way to get to the festival is via public transport. The shrine is less than a five minute walk from Kawasaki-Daishi Station. From central Tokyo, take the Keikyu Line from Shinagawa Station (on the Yamanote Line), and then switch to the Keikyu-Dashi Line at Keikyu-Kawasaki Station. Or just follow the more festive looking crowd dressed in penis-related paraphernalia.
Kanayama Shrine, 2 Chome-13-16 Daishi Ekimae, Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture 210-0802, +81 4 4222 3206