Japan Culture Watch: Kanamara Matsuri

I often think I don’t take full advantage of living in Japan, in terms of my website contributions. I don’t mean I need to write travelblog entries, since that’s not the focus of the site. There’s plenty of good sources for that anyway, including friend of the Podcast Cookie’s own blog, which you can visit here. However, living in a foreign country does expose me to a lot of exciting and different material I should be using to fuel my blog presence a bit more directly.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus in on what I should write. For example, should I blog about visiting the Tokyo Game Show? Other sites do that, and their updates happen live, so a 2-week-delayed description of the goings on would be a little bit redundant.

Today I found my muse. I learned about a yearly festival held in Kawasaki, which is a little city part of the urban sprawl between Tokyo and Yokohama, called the Kanamara Matsuri (I will translate it later). Ladies and gentleman, Japan is a different world. I have not personally been to the festival; I only just heard about it roughly 27 minutes ago, but was so enraptured by it conceptually I needed to blog about it immediately. Disclaimer: if you are a minor and/or excessively prude, please don’t read the rest of this article.

Kanamara Matsuri translates to “Festival of the Steel Phallus,” and it a festival that worships the penis. Not the god of penises, or the penis of a god, but the penis, just as a conceptual wonder object. According to history, the less-bold may dub it legend or myth, a toothed demon once hid inside a maiden’s vagina, and bit off the penises of her husbands on wedding nights. Yes, it’s our old friend, the dreaded vagina dentata, which has haunted the man-guilt built into all male-dominated societies across the globe, space, and time. Our heroine eventually wizened up, and enlisted a blacksmith to forge an iron dildo, which she used to break the demon’s teeth, thus freeing her to have sex without castrating her beloved(s). The iron phallus of legend(truth?) is purportedly enshrined in the present-day building.

The shrine was also a popular spot for prostitutes during the Edo period (1603-1867) to come and pray for healing/prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. And it is allegedly often used today to raise money for HIV research and awareness, so that’s kind of legit. It also celebrates fertility, marriage, etc.

…But it’s a festival! We’re here to have fun. The celebrations begin with Maiko (Geisha disciples) dancing around on a stage. I’m sure a priest says something at some point. And after that, There’s parades and all sorts of giant penis statues. They carry around a Mikoshi (portable shrine; typical of any local festival), except that this one is ringed with penises.

It’s apparently a big-time event for the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Chaz Bono) community in Japan, though I’m not really sure what’s in it for the lesbians.  It is by no means an event exclusively attended by, or staged for, GLBTizens. There’s also another, smaller, shrine nearby that houses a statue of spread legs and a vagina. You buy little penis charms, and rub them on the clitoris for good luck in general, and I guess fertility, too.

My bad, this picture was actually taken at Penn State circa 1999. Just Kidding! Too soon? Ok, ok. You’re right though; that is a picture of middle school girls giddily riding a giant dick.

And no festival atmosphere is complete without novelty foods! Anthony Bourdain, take some notes, buddy.

                                                 Wait a minute, is that…the enemy?! Pastry Vaginas!

                                   Never seen a woman look so pleased when faced with the real thing.

The festival is also a huge draw for tourists. I guess because of the novelty. I doubt there are many other countries where it’s acceptable for people to eat pastry dicks and hug penis statues, even if only once a year.

                                   They just grow up so fast ; _ ; Where did daddy’s little girls go?!

Now, I know I made my jokes and had my fun, but let’s take a short step back, and out of our Western, Christian-value shoes. It is important to understand not all religious traditions vilify women and sex. Please understand, I am not making fun of the festival, I am having fun with it. Look at the pictures, everyone is smiling and laughing. And these aren’t fringe-group, counter culture rebels, either. The Kanamara Matsuri isn’t a pride parade or a protest. It’s traditional and mainstream. Every year loads of adults, children, and old people from all walks of life attend the festivities. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s all due to some indecipherable cultural gap. That is a far too often used cop out to excuse laziness.

Japanese culture is not quite so rigid and humorless as usually portrayed in the West. Everyone realizes how ridiculous eating dick candy and riding wooden penises looks. Most of the people at the festival aren’t there in a solemn show of religious piety (I don’t want to say “all,” since I’m sure there are more than a few obaa-chans out there praying for their granddaughter to be fertile or something); they’re there to let loose and enjoy. And, oddly enough, so are the tourists. Do any of them look like they’re going to attend a confessional when they get back home? Everyone likes a good dirty joke, some people just it further than others. Shinto, Japan’s sort-of-native sort-of-religion,  is the worship and celebration of nature and community. It isn’t a dour police-state religion over-concerned with death and denying pleasure. That’s why they have Buddhism! (rim shot) Countless shrines across the country have their own local festivals, celebrating whatever is special about them. That can range anywhere from sacred artifacts brought to Earth by the Sun Goddess, to penises. Nothing weird, or embarrassing about that at all. And I don’t mean that in terms of Japan. We’re talking about general humanity.

I did a bit of research, but unfortunately couldn’t find any shrines or festivals dedicated to boobs, asses, or legs. I guess we can’t have everything. The Kanamara Matsuri takes place in early April, with the cherry blossoms out, the perfect time to worship the penis and the slaying of tooth demons. My calendar is marked.

Here is the official site for those who want to learn more.

Later days,
Sagramore

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