The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Big in Japan

My last matsuri…again!

Following is an article I have written on the marvelous Kanamara matsuri which took place in Kawasaki Daishi the Sunday before I left Japan. These images and words are copyrighted, of course, but if you would like to buy this story please get in touch.

Also more images of the amazing Kanamara Penis Festival at my photoshelter archive here.

That’s all for now

Damon

BIG IN JAPAN

“There are certain things we think we instinctively know about a country and its people; simple facts we believe to be as true as the mountain ranges or capital cities we learnt about at school. Take Japan for example; the image we have of this mysterious land is of a rather humourless, rigidly polite and uptight, dare I say, even prudish place. Yet a quick flick through the television channels any day of the week reveals a land in almost constant laughter while a ride on the outrageously crowded subways will show you that some Japanese, at least, can be brutally selfish. Just try beating one of the little old ladies, known none too affectionately as Obattalions, to a spare seat on a train and you will know what I mean.

As for sex, although no-one talks about it the Japanese are apparently at it all the time, from convenient love-hotels, where couples desperate for privacy can pop in for an hour or two of louder than usual fun to the openly read pornographic manga comics. Throw in a couple of fertility festivals and other oddities like the bizarre Kanamara Iron Phallus matsuri, which every April unashamedly celebrates the male member by having people carry huge models of the thing around the streets, and you have a country quite unlike the one you expect.

This being Japan though, there is obviously some deeper culture attached. The festival, which takes place in Kawasaki Daishi south of Tokyo, is supposed to have had its roots in an Edo era (1600 – 1868) legend that spoke of a penis eating demon that understandably terrified the local men. As the local shrine had originally been built to honour the gods of iron (swords used to be made there and it still houses a foundry that is lit with sacred fire on the morning of the festival) a clever monk decided to make a large iron penis with which he hoped to trick the demon. One day as she went about her painful buffet she spied a rather large shiny black penis just standing around waiting to be bitten off and, without thinking this was even a little unusual, took a mighty bite and broke all her teeth thus ending her ruinous appetites. After that the local people apparently took to carrying that iron phallus around on a mikoshi or portable shrine to celebrate. 

Another, more believable, story is that the festival grew from the picnic parties the local prostitutes used to have under the cherry blossom after they came to the shrine to pray for good business and protection from syphilis,

Nowadays many people from all over Japan come to watch this entertaining and colourful festival. It is especially popular with the gay, and for some inexplicable reason, the lesbian community. Not surprisingly it is also popular with foreigners living in Tokyo.

The first things I saw on entering the shrine’s grounds, apart from what appeared to be the entire personnel of the nearby Yokosuka U.S. Navy Base, were a couple of large wooden phalluses that many women, and even a few men, were queuing-up to climb on and have their picture taken. To straddle this impressive piece of wood was supposed to bring the women luck in love but the porn actress style over-acting with the penis-shaped lollipops looked sufficiently well practiced to be in need of any more luck in that direction. Real pornography was itself on sale at the numerous small stalls that always spring up in shrine courtyards at festival time and the DVDs, books and posters could be freely perused along with very instructive and inventive, Kama Sutra tea-towels, love chocolate (what ever that is), very rude candles and many more suggestively-shaped sweets. They even sold Viagra at one stall, which is not your usual festival souvenir, and just to make the day that little bit weirder a little old lady accosted me as I walked towards the main buildings of the shrine and thrust some condoms in my hand. To be fair this was done much more politely than I make it sound and the condoms were just part of a welcome bag containing information on the festival. It seems that as in the days of old this festival is still about protecting people from sexually transmitted disease and the photo-copied sheets that had been so informative about cherry blossom and sword smith monks also told me that all the money raised today would go to the fight against HIV and AIDS.

If little old ladies giving you condoms is not strange enough at the shrine itself was perhaps the festival most famous sight: a three metre tall pink polystyrene penis. Now one of the other things we think we know about Japan is that the men have…well…how shall I put this? considerably less than three metres. Yet all over the temple grounds were enough impressively large representations of the male member to make any foreigner feel unusually inadequate. I saw one American girl walk passed with “everything is bigger in Texas” printed across the front of her T-shirt; while this was definitely true of everything about her, even Texan men, I fear, would have difficulty measuring-up to this monstrosity. And it was just one of three portable shrines sporting frighteningly large  phalluses (the others made from iron and wood) that loomed above the shrine’s courtyard. 

Portable shrines or Mikoshi festivals happen all over Japan and are entertaining and decidedly crazy events. Most have absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s genitalia however; the usual mikoshi being a small, ornate shrine in which the local god is installed at festival time. It is thought that a grand, noisy tour once or twice a year is all he needs to be happy and continue extending his protection to the neighbourhood. If you are lucky enough to arrive in Japan at matsuri time you are guaranteed a fun experience. At the very least the locals will ply you with alcohol and snacks and you may even be invited to join in with the carrying. Some of these festivals are huge, involving hundreds of mikoshi. The biggest is the Sanja Matsuri which takes place over the third weekend in May in the streets around Asakusa in Tokyo and is well worth seeing but there are many more, smaller community events like Kanamara festival. 

Though the locals and tourists had been milling around since the morning the festival proper started at twelve when a colourfully robed priestess came out to bless the phalluses. After the blessing many men, some dressed rather unconvincingly as women who belonged to a part-time transvestite group called the Elizabeth Club, came down and crawled under the bars of the mikoshi. Tying headscarves around their foreheads and supping the last painkilling qualities from cans of beer (Mikoshi are painfully heavy) they shouted and all together lifted the three mikoshi onto their shoulders. Tottering a second as they found the balance and got used to the burden they were soon chanting a mesmerizing rhythm and working their way through the crowds as they carried the mikoshi out under the shrine’s gate and into the street. All along the roads of Kawasaki Daishi people came out of their houses and shops to watch the parade go noisily by: young and old, men and women, many stopping the priestess to give her paper-wrapped donations and receive a blessing in return; many more just to gawp at the transvestites under the huge pink penis. 

It was a strange sort of thing to see on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon in an otherwise quiet part of Tokyo, the sort of thing in fact you would strive to shield your children from in England. Yet here big men in small dresses flirtatiously receiving assistance from real men in even shorter kimonos or little girls expertly fellating lollipops or even a man dressed as a French maid directing traffic drew neither stares nor censure. That’s the thing with Japan, you may think you know what it is going to be like before you go there but it is easy to find yourself being very wrong about this country most of the time.

The parade lasted about two hours slowly winding its way back to the shrine just in time for the evening’s entertainment. After the phalluses were put to rest back under the shrine’s roof, where they stood like rather camp missiles, the crowd began to find other distractions in the food stalls. Fried noodles, octopus balls, which are not at all rude by the way, and of course more beers were consumed by the men who had bruised and exhausted themselves under the mikoshi earlier. The transvestites meanwhile sat out under the cherry trees, combing cherry blossom from their wigs and enjoyed a surreal, Alice in Wonderland-like picnic surrounded by their swarm of photographers. Behind them middle-aged housewives danced the Hula bare-footed on blue vinyl groundsheets and balding playboys sang Enka classics on Karaoke machines to silver haired condom givers who were tidying up tabletops full of vagina-shaped incense stick holders. And young children, looking around at all the strangeness, asked awkward questions of parents who had no words to explain everything they saw. 

I mean, who would?”


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4 responses

  1. J Kato

    Wow, this is shocking. I’m impressed by a woman who holds the big stuff and smiles with joy…

    April 11, 2008 at 2:41 am

  2. Kato San thanks for dropping by. Yes she looks very happy. The most worrying pictures (not displayed here of course) are of the men doing the same though…just not right! Will try and get together for another drink in Yokohama when I return. OK?
    Damon

    April 11, 2008 at 7:59 am

  3. Pingback: Try anything once… «

  4. samuel welsh

    pretty disturving stuff

    May 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm

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