A large, pink phallus turns the corner and heads down the street. Sitting atop the shoulders of 10-12 men in bandanas, it bobs up and down to their rhythmic chants. Locals carve white radishes into images of the male reproductive system, preparing to auction them off at an afternoon banquet. Transvestites line the street; their red lipstick and hairy legs are no less a contrast than the grandmother who's licking on a lollypop that's in the shape of a....well, you can probably guess by now.
Is it a fraternity house event? A giant bachelor party? Some kind of dirty magazine's year-end bash? No, this is the Kanamara Matsuri, a yearly fertility festival held at Kanamara Shrine in Kawasaki, Japan. Created back in Japan's Edo period (1603-1867) to pray for sexual safety (especially against syphilis) among Kawasaki's prostitutes, this Shinto gathering now helps raise money for HIV/AIDS research. But the festival attracts more than just those interested in fighting STDs; it also draws Japanese couples looking for good fertility luck, a large gay/lesbian crowd, lots of proud locals, and scores of interested foreigners who come to gawk at the gigantic portable plaster phallus shrine and buy souvenir John Thomas lollypops and charms.
While the festival seems bizarre to those of us foreigners present, to the Japanese it is standard fare. Fertility festivals exist in more than a few locales in Japan, where ninety-five percent of the population is Buddhist or Shinto. Here, there is no shame in holding a festival about sex at a religious venue. For many in attendance, the liberal mood is refreshing. To me, it once again challenges my preconceived notions about rigidity in Japanese religious culture. It is not the first time. A couple of months ago I walked through the sacred confines of a different Shinto Shrine, only to find a toy stand racked with Japanese manga (comic) character masks, bags of candy, and even toy guns. So maybe today's festival should not surprise me.
But one event, involving a middle aged-man, a unique Shinto statue, and an unfortunate case of the butterfingers, most definitely will.
It is certainly not by coincidence that the Kanamara Matsuri falls during the cherry blossom season; a precious two-week window where Japan's famous flowers bloom. Today, like every weekend day in the Spring, there are outdoor parties all over the archipelago. Throngs of frisky fun-seekers head outdoors, spreading blue tarps under cherry trees, sipping silver-canned Asahi beers and eating Japanese picnic food — sushi, sukiyaki, takoyaki (fried octopus), tempura, and tofu — under the pink blaze of blossoms overhead. On a small stage, a band plays a mixed bag of tunes, from rock and roll to pop to country. Red-faced teenagers and passed-out grandfathers lay within feet of each other.
It is crowded. But to pass through the mass assembled in the courtyard, I must navigate many obstacles besides people — namely, tall, neatly piled mountains of plastic picnic trash standing at intervals throughout the grounds. On the other side there, I'm sad to find out that they have run out of phallic lollypops — can you imagine a cooler souvenir to send home? We do our best to rebound. My Canadian friend Dave stops to pose for a picture with a transvestite. They both flex their muscles and smile, exchanging back slaps before parting.
We end up in a building next to Kanamara Shrine. I climb up a wooden staircase into a small, dusty, room, where a small collection of items collected from past festivals is on exhibit. Behind panes of glass is a neat display of penises carved from wood, paintings of traditionally-clad Japanese engaged in copulation, and fat Buddhas with penis heads and hidden vagina imprints underneath their bases. The items' weathered wood and faded paint offers proof this festival has indeed been around for awhile. A particularly interesting item is a small picture of the famous mienai, kikenai, hanasenai (can't see, can't hear, can't speak) Japanese monkeys. Alongside the monkeys covering their ears, eyes, and mouth, respectively, are two more primates; one covering his crotch and the other his bum. A volunteer museum official in a yellow jacket leans over and tells me, with a smile, 'those two are called 'can't give' and 'can't take.''
But by far the most important item on display in this unique museum is a small statue — strike that, statuette — in the middle of the room. There, in a wooden case with two swinging doors, is a life-size brass model of a vagina, centered between the stumps of two spreading legs. Its shine had been dulled by the years; I notice it is especially tarnished around the small oval opening in the middle. A few questions to the yellow-jacketed official, and I find out this small shrine's meaning; for five hundred yen, you can buy a tiny golden penis charm from the shop downstairs, and rub it on the vagina shrine for good fertility luck.
I stand for a moment, admiring the artistic merit of the brass image. Soon a middle-aged Japanese man with glasses and a small backpack walks into the room and kneels down in front of the sacred shrine. Nervously, he removes his penis charm from its white wrapping. Closing his eyes and mumbling a prayer, he begins to rub the gold phallus in a circular motion around the opening of the brass vagina.
Suddenly, disaster strikes. Wrapped up in the religious fervor of the moment, he accidentally drops the charm into the opening. Shaking with a start, he opens his eyes and peers into the hole, horrified. He tries to get the charm out, but it seems to be stuck too far in. His pinky, a pencil, nothing seems to work. What was supposed to be good luck was turning into a nightmare.
Behind foggy glasses, the man furtively glances around the room, looking for help. Soon the man in the yellow jacket comes over. He is obviously amused. Beads of sweat form on the brow of the kneeling man, who pulls on his disheveled hair in agony. Desperate, he grabs the brass vagina by its spreading leg stumps and shakes it. The museum official's smile disappears, and he pulls the brass image away, calling over a few other officials to 'check out' the situation.
Though I'm not sure it's polite to laugh at the man's religious misfortune, giggle control is impossible. A few of the officials smirk over at me and begin to laugh, too. No sympathy for the poor soul who'd just lost his fertility in the brass vagina shrine.
Soon a short, older woman who seems to be in charge enters the small museum. One look in the vagina and she becomes enraged. 'You're not supposed to put it INSIDE!' she scolds the man. Secretly, I can't help but wonder how the man is ever going to have kids if he does otherwise.
Ten minutes later, the man finally leaves. Curious, I kneel down at the scene of his misfortune and squint into the dark hole. There is the charm, resting in the canal about one inch in. Checking to make sure no one is looking, I extend my tiny cell phone antennae and poke it into the opening, trying to wiggle the charm out. Terrible idea. Clumsily, I fish around until I hear a dreadful 'clink;' the charm has slid in deeper, hitting the back of the canal. It is lost forever.
Within seconds, the man returns to the room. He walks up behind me, apparently to take another stab at removal. I wonder if 'woops' is the same in Japanese as it is in English.
The conversation that followed was not pleasant; though I think in the end he wasn't too angry. Which is impressive, considering I'd stolen the man's fertility.
The festival begins to wind down. The band continues to play, but the number of people sleeping on their blue tarps is beginning to catch up with those who are still up and at it. Dusk arrives, and the beautiful pink cherry blossoms look even more brilliant against the darkening sky. They'll cling to their branches for a few more weeks, and then flutter to the ground, gone until next year. But they will return, as always, signaling the fertile Spring and the next Kanamara Matsuri. Hopefully next year, every Fertility Festival-goer with hopes for children will come away with a smile and a lucky charm. Just remember to hold on tight.