Alright, so, here we go. This is the festival with the giant phallus parading through town. There are a lot of expectations going into an event like this, and a lot of things you are suspecting to see. I’m here to report that some of those expectations were met thoroughly, while others fell woefully short of expectation.
The Good: History and Folklore
The story behind this festival and why their portable shrines have giant penises on them is very interesting and slightly horrifying. The tale is an old Ainu story, collected by a researcher from Tokyo Imperial University. See, once a woman had a demon get inside of her and posses her vagina. Unbeknownst to the woman or her husband, the demon then bit off his penis (a la Vagina Dentata) during intercourse. To combat this, the local blacksmith forget a metal penis that they inserted into the woman, shattering the demon’s teeth, and sending him on his way for good. Hence why we have a giant black penis at this shrine, to commemorate this… tale.
Another bit of lore from this shrine involves the gods enshrined here: Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime. They healed the goddess of the gods and goddesses, Inazumi, after she gave birth to a fire demon. Let that image burn into your mind and then realize that the shrine, for a long time, had people come there to pray for protection against STDs and for uncomplicated childbirth.
The pink phallus in the second portable shrine (mikoshi) was donated to the shrine by the drag group Elizabeth, and was traditionally carried by men in drag. This year, however, I didn’t see any of the carriers, so I can’t report on the accuracy of this information. This mikoshi is aptly known as the Elizabeth Mikoshi. Given all the focus on demons in vaginas and rock-hard dicks, it should be noted that funds from the festival are given to help support HIV research, in keeping with the protection from STDs motif mentioned prior.
Now, are people aware of this story and tradition? Is that why most of them go to the festival? I would say not. They’re there for the spectacle of dicks.
The Bad: Timing
If you want to do anything here and not be crushed in a sea of people, you need to get there early. The parade and shrine won’t start anything until 10 AM, but you’d better believe there will be people lined up hours before then. The early April start can also be troublesome, because that is when schools and new employees traditionally begin their new studies or work, making it a bit difficult to squeeze in the day trip. As a result, you’ll see a healthy 50/50 mix of foreigners and Japanese folk, but for the most part, it seems the foreigners are the ones there to party.
The Ugly: Crowds
When I braved the Chichibu Yon Matsuri a few years back (which I didn’t write about, due to lack of good photos), I thought being crushed on the train would solidify that experience as the most crowded experience of my time in Japan. Until I this festival, that is. I attempted to watch the parade with the portable shrines (mikoshi) strutting down the street, but found myself several yards away from the closest vantage point, rendering the mikoshi a tiny speck barely poking out above the heads.
The Mrs. and I also tried to get into the temple itself as well. I wanted to buy one of their special shrine stamp books (goshuincho, or goshuin book) for the festival, deliciously covered in discreet phallic imagery. We arrived around 9:30, and queued up. The line was exhaustive. We had to wait about two and a half hours to even get to the gate of the shrine. Once inside, you could barely move. Most of the penis goods had sold out. I navigated my way to an information booth and asked about the stamp book. They directed me to another massive line that, by my estimation, had another hour to an hour and a half of waiting. Tired and hungry, and afraid I would be waiting in line only to find out the stamp books had sold out, we retired back to the station and away to find a late lunch.
Kanamara Penis Festival: Final Thoughts
While there is an interesting tradition and story around this shrine and this festival in particular, you have to ask yourself “Do I want to crammed into lines or crowds for several hours with no guarantee of being able to see or get what I am looking for?” If you don’t mind the rush and are just there to party and have a good time, then you’ll fit in with most of the crowd. If you’re an avid collector of all things phallic, you’ll need to get there very, very early if you want penis candy, penis sake flasks, or anything of that sort.
For me, it wasn’t worth it. I feel this fell victim to over-hype. It could have also been poor planning on my part, but seeing what I saw, I’m not sure there is a good way to make this festival less hectic. So many people came there and I couldn’t tell you how many people in the crowds talked about abandoning the festival to go elsewhere. Give it a go, but be warned!