Do you see this shrine? It looks pretty innocent, right? Just another Hachimangu shrine, nothing out of the ordinary. It has luxurious wooden decoration, sake donations next to the main hall, and a nice sign for Shichi-go-san, the children’s ceremony. It bears the name ‘Wakamiya Hachimangu’ (若宮八幡宮).
[If you are here for the pink coats, skip to the end of the article.]
To its left, there is another building, prefaced by a dozen Torii vermilion gates and a frame for hanging wooden prayers. Soon, a careful observer will start noticing a pattern; phallic and clitoral symbols. Some are discrete, some are as realistic as possible. This is none other than the famous/infamous ‘Kanayama Shrine’, in Kawasaki. The shrine reveres Kanamara-sama, and is more commonly known with that name. The word ‘Mara’ (魔羅), refers both to the demon that tried to put obstacles on Gautama Buddha’s journey towards enlightenment as well as the phallus. Kanamara was created by a pretty grim process. While goddess Izanami was giving birth to a fire-god, she got burnt on her genitals and due to the extreme dysphoria, she vomited. That was how Kanamara came in existence, destined to protect and heal the lower body of the goddess and common people, alike.
What surprised me most, were the anvils, of which I noticed at least two. They resemble the Sanskritic ‘Linga Yoni’, an anvil decorated with a phallus on top. The first kanji of the shrine’s name is 金 (kane), which means gold, but also money and metal in general. Accordingly, the shrine is protecting miners, blacksmiths and hardware-makers. This is the reason why the annual Kanamara festival is also translated as ‘Steel phallus’ festival in English. Apart from the obvious connection of blacksmiths to the fire-god, the process of using bellows to pump air to the metal, is reminiscent of Izanami giving birth. Therefore, on November 1st the blacksmiths hold their own ‘festival of the bellows’ (鞴祭神符授与祭 Fuigo-matsuri Shinpujuyosai), with live metal-work performances and Kagura dances.
Apart from blacksmiths and machine merchants, people come to the shrine asking for assistance during childbirth, for marital happiness, against infertility and STDs. In the recent years, most of the visitors are women or LGBTQ+ folks, looking for spiritual support and offering prayers written on wooden Ema. One prominent depiction on the Ema is that of Momotaro, the peach boy, coming out of a peach, similar to how a baby comes out of the womb. The ceiling depicts a variation of the three wise monkeys, with the addition of two more, the ‘transmit no evil’ and ‘receive no evil’ monkeys. The 7 lucky gods, the Shichifukujin, are keeping company to the monkeys, but with a twist; their heads are elongated vertically and wrinkled.
The gods of the shrine are called Kanayama-hiko and Kanayama-hime, male and female, protectors of metal-works and sex. As expected, the holy objects of the shrine are none other than penises and eggs, with the most important one being the black phallus in front of the main hall. There are three portable mikoshi: Kanamara, Kanamara Boat and Elizabeth, a pink one. The boat mikoshi is donated by Hitachi Zosen, a heavy-industry and steel manufacturer company (not to be confused with the more popular Hitachi, which focuses on electronics). Elizabeth mikoshi was donated by a cross-dressing club, the Elizabeth Kaikan. While the penis-shaped objects are easy to spot, the vagina-shaped objects are scattered around as well, usually in the shape of stone eggs or peaches. Protective amulets and the official goshuin stamp feature both the male and the female god.
The annual Kanamara festival is held on the first Sunday of April. While the festival is a recent tradition, its predecessor is the Jibeta festival during Edo period, held by maids and prostitutes in the area, asking for protection against venereal disease and business prosperity. The location is of importance, since this specific area of Kawasaki was part of the Tokaido route, a busy path full of travellers. In its current form, it appeared around the 1960s, under the instructions of a priest who studied STDs at the university and an association of people wanting to create a festival for everyone to enjoy, without discrimination. Initially a small neighbourhood festival, it rose to international prominence after a tourist described his accidental visit there. The sudden threat of AIDS, also propelled its fame. By all accounts, it looks more like a pride parade than a shinto festival. At some point, it even featured wooden structures to fake horse-ride and take selfies (until some immoral weirdos came and ruined it). Currently, most of the observers during the festival are foreigners, who sometimes forget that it is originally a religious festival, causing frictions with the local community. Despite featuring sexual imagery, the festival is still more about shinto, fertility and business prosperity, and less about sex itself.
The procession of the mikoshi during the festival is an event full of colours. The priests and miko are dressed up with lavish kimono and tengu masks, while the participants use various costumes, ranging from sailor moon to nurse. There is an order of when every ‘topic’ is presented, telling the story of the gods Izanami and Kanamara. Some observers are dressed up as well, to the extent of rocking a full samurai-with-a-katana outfit. When I visited, the whole neighbourhood was packed with people, with barely enough space for the procession to pass. That’s how popular this festival is.
Of course, along with the popularity came business chance and innovation. Nearby shops collaborated with the shrine and now sell candy shaped as a penis or a vagina on the days of the festival. A lot of pink foods, like pink mochi, are offered, together with the traditional matsuri street-food at pop-up stalls. Some shops, give out penis-hats together with the ordered drinks. You can even buy festival-themed t-shirts and other collectibles.
After the procession, you get a nice opportunity to hang around at the slightly less crowded Kawasaki Daishi. Religious celebrations associated with phallic symbols brings to mind the Greek Dionysia and Roman Bacchanalia, held two millennia ago. Thinking about it, Kanamara festival seems really similar to the annual Bourani festival in Tyrnavos, Greece. Have you ever been to either of those festivals? Do you like the quirky atmosphere, despite the association with ‘serious’ religion? Tell me about it in the comments!