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Inside Japan’s 2018 Kanamara Matsuri Festival

On the surface, Japan’s Kanamara Matsuri may seem ridiculous, but back in the 1970s, this Shinto celebration began as a serious religious event.

Where in the world are you most likely to find giant phallic floats being paraded loudly down the street while onlookers happily hold phallus-shaped lollypops and shop for themed merchandise? Japan, of course! Every April, the Kanamara Matsuri—otherwise known as the “penis festival”—takes place at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki City, which is located between Tokyo and Yokohama. “Why?” is the question on a first-time festivalgoer’s mind as they witness three giant floating phalluses—one long and black, one short and wooden, and one enormous and bright pink—being carried through the Kawasaki streets past stalls full of phallic-shaped goods like candy, chopstick holders, and stationery.

The answer is that although Kanayama Shrine was founded to enshrine the god of blacksmiths, prostitutes who worked in the lodges around Kawasaki-juku Station during the Edo Period (1603–1868) came to offer prayers at the shrine to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Over time, it also became the place where people came to pray for fertility, good sexual health, and safe childbirth. These were the roots of what eventually became the Kanamara Matsuri. This springtime festival happens on the first Sunday of April, a time of new beginnings when the weather is warming and new life is blossoming.

The festival was once much smaller and quieter—celebrated with only a handful of people at the shrine at midnight. Today, crowds of between 30,000 and 50,000 swarm the event—which begins in the morning and goes all day—with foreign visitors making up a good portion of attendees. Two extra plusses of the event are that it supports LGBTQ rights, and the money raised during the event goes toward supporting research into HIV and AIDS.

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A geisha in her full attire attracts the eyes of spectators at the Kanamara Matsuri.

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The atmosphere of the Kanamara Festival is like that of a massive street party—many participants wear costumes, and there is plenty of drinking and dancing.

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A stall selling Rainbow Reel Tokyo merchandise. Rainbow Reel is an international film festival for LGBTQ audiences.

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Paperweights and chopstick holders on sale at the Kanamara Matsuri.

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A parade participant dressed as a tengu—a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion which is also considered a type of Shinto god.

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In the spirit of things: A man peddles phallic goods.

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Eager festival participants hoist the Kanamara Dai Mikoshi—the float that houses a gnarled wooden phallus—onto their shoulders and carry it through the streets.

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The Kanamara Funa Mikoshi—the long black steel phallus float—makes its way back to Kanayama shrine.

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Japanese daikon radish carving competitions take place to see who can carve the best radish penis.

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The festival experience is not complete without a lollypop purchase, and this Kanamara Matsuri veteran will be more than pleased to sell it to you.

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This bright pink handmade phallus is called Elizabeth, named after the Tokyo drag queen club Elizabeth Kaikan in Asakusa that donated it. Elizabeth is carried by transgender participants with the aim of bringing more awareness to the LGBTQ community.

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