In early April, scores of revelers gather in the city of Kawasaki, about 30 minutes south of Tokyo, to celebrate Kanamara Matsuri – Japan’s infamous penis festival, with a name translating roughly to Festival of the Steel Phallus. Kanamara Matsuri’s main festivities have taken place on the first Sunday of April since 1969 (yes, seriously).
At the festival centering on the um, organ and fertility, attendees get to erect gigantic penis statues on handheld shrines, enjoy penis-shaped lollipops, buy penis-shaped candles, and (obviously) dress as penises. There’s a seemingly endless array of phallic merch!
“Amazing. So fun, so unique, such a different experience,” one Australian tourist who went to this year’s gathering told Euronews. “It’s so weird coming from Australia to see something like this, but it looks like everyone’s having a great time.”
In the past, an estimated 50,000 people from around the world have gathered annually for the festival, with numbers shrinking in recent years due to COVID. Besides being visually unique, the festival has taken on a positive message: raising awareness about safe sex and gathering profits from merch sales to fund HIV research. (In recent years, Japan has seen a rise in rates of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, with more than 50% more patients treated for the disease in 2022 than in 2021, per Japanese news source the Mainichi.) The event has also been an inclusive space for Japanese LGBTQ communities.
But what about the festival’s origins? During Japan’s Edo Period, from 1603 to 1867, Kawasaki was known for having quite the nightlife scene, as it was a popular center for trade and commerce. The city’s Kanayama Shrine, built in roughly 698 CE, features a statue of a steel penis and became a place for sex workers to pray for protection against sexually transmitted infections and for others to pray for fertility. This history, combined with one particular local folktale involving a toothed demon and a steel penis – quite the combo – led to the modern version of Kanamara Matsuri.
BuzzFeed News last attended Kanamara Matsuri in 2019. We decided to go back post-COVID and the festival is still going strong, with revelers partying extra hard.