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Carlos Quiapo / © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo / © Culture Trip
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A Brief History of Kanamara Matsuri, Japan's Penis Worship Festival

Picture of James Gates
Updated: 4 April 2018
It’s quite a sight to behold. Every spring, large crowds line the streets of Kawasaki City for a very special event. The atmosphere is one of joy and revelry as people chant and celebrate, all the while hoping to get a glimpse of the venerated shrine paraded before them – a giant penis.

This festival is a long-running event with a unique history rooted in Japanese spirituality, which in the present day is used as a sex-positive celebration at which all are welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip

The festival – known as Kanamura Matsuri – has origins which can be traced back to an ancient Japanese legend. As the story goes, a vicious demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman after falling in love with her. Such was this entity’s jealousy that it proceeded to bite off the penises of two young men on two separate wedding nights of the woman. In the aftermath of this grisly ordeal, the woman sought help from a blacksmith who fashioned an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, which in turn led to the item’s enshrinement at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip

Sex and religion in Japan are by no means exclusive thanks to flexibility of the Shinto, a form of worship which acknowledges and worships spirits found in nature. The Kanayama Shrine became a focal point for couples who wished to pray for fertility and good fortune in their marriage. From the 17th to the 19th century, the site was frequented by prostitutes who would pray for either protection or cure from sexually transmitted diseases.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip

It was around this time that the first festivals focussing on sexual health were held at the shrine, but the tradition had fizzled out by the end of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1970 that the then-chief priest Hirohiko Nakamura decided to resurrect the event.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Kanamara Matsuri-Tokyo-Japan
Kanamara Matsuri-Tokyo-Japan

In its early days it was a muted affair, held at night and only attracting a smattering of penis worshippers. That all changed in 2012, when the event was name-checked by Matsuko Deluxe, the Japanese TV personality who has been a long-term supporter of sexual equality in the country. The Matsuko bump meant that, by the present day, the event is one of the biggest events in Kawasaki’s calendar with over 50,000 visitors each year.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip

The main event is the parade, in which three mikoshi (portable shrines), each containing their own phallus, are carried through the city streets. The first, a straight, shiny black affair is handled by a group of shrine-bearers. The second one is an ancient, wooden version, but it is the third which has the most flamboyant troupe of carriers: a collection of cross-dressers known as Elizabeth Kaikan who prance through the streets in bright make-up and outfits, playing to the crowd.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip

Elsewhere, an avalanche of phallic paraphernalia accompanies the event. Visitors can be seen sucking on penis-shaped lollipops and similar-shaped decorations can be seen all over the town. While such trappings may lend the event an air of frivolousness, organisers promote it as a non-discriminatory event where the LGBTQ community is welcome (Shinto, which does not recognise the concept of original sin, is far more tolerant on matters of sexuality). Pamphlets are distributed, and, in recent years, the event has been used to raise funds for HIV research.

If you’re interested in having some phallic-themed fun yourself, check out our guide on how to experience Kanamara Matsuri in Tokyo.

Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip
Carlos Quiapo /
Carlos Quiapo / | © Culture Trip