I’m pretty certain with this title I have both lost and gained followers, and such is life. Before I go into this too much, make sure you use your best judgment based on the title as to whether this post is safe for work/school/etc. But you do you.
The “penis festivals” of Greater Nagoya and Greater Tokyo are only separated by a couple of weeks; the former is the Honen Matsuri at Tagata Jinja, which occurs on March 15, and the latter is the Kanamara Matsuri at Wakamiya Hachimangu takes place the 1st Sunday in April each year. Technically they are both similar of origin–fertility festivals (it is no coincidence surely that they both take place at the beginning of spring)–and very phallic and nature, which is what brought them international attention.
The Honen Matsuri (豊年祭り) literally means “bountiful year festival,” and takes place in the town of Komaki due north of Nagoya. In contrast, the Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭り) is always written in hiragana, but a slight digging into the possible etymology reveals the equally scandalous (and much more blunt) potential literal meaning: kana possibly comes from a reading of 金, which means “gold,” and mara surely comes from the Buddhist term of the same pronunciation 魔羅, which means an “obstacle to Buddhist practice” or otherwise a very slang-y and vulgar term for penis. (I don’t know this etymology for sure, as especially kana can have many ways of writing, and for example could come from the host prefecture’s name Kanagawa, but I have very little doubt that my interpretation of mara is incorrect.) It takes place in Kawasaki, the capital of Kanagawa, which is just about 30 minutes outside downtown Tokyo.
As you can see, just by looking at the names, the vibes for the two festivals–as scandalous as we foreigners (and many Japanese as well nowadays) may see them to be–seem to be pretty different. I had the fantastic opportunity to go to the Honen Matsuri in 2014, and just came back from the Kanamara Matsuri this weekend, and while much has been written about the two separately (and especially the latter), I have yet to find any comparison of the two. So, in the words of Mario, here we go.
But wait a moment!
Before I go into the meat of this post, I really do need to give a short briefing about what is considered “scandalous” and “erotic” and “normal” in the Japanese context. It’s easy to label Japan as the porn capital of the world (which, having done relatively extensive research in the modern Japanese porn industry/sexism/exploitation sectors, I can’t bring myself to negate entirely, although I also can’t do any sweet talk about other countries either) and to be like “Oh Japan” with a sigh and a laugh and a flick of the wrist while secretly judging the country for being so shy about many forms of sexuality and rampaging regarding others. BUT(T) we really need to look at pre-Westernized Japan to put this into context. I won’t go on and on about the nitty-gritty details, but here’s the foundation of what you need to know:
Especially before the West “opened up” Japan (oh my God the scare quotes), Japan was pretty sex-positive–at least in comparison to most of the West. Shinto especially was pretty open about sexuality and letting the population grow and be free and one with each other, and I guess in a way Buddhism was a fair balance to this. Sex and sexuality used to be considered just another facet of life–which, let’s be real here, it is, no matter how hard people work to not acknowledge it. This openness to promiscuity was especially prevalent in smaller villages, which is where some of these festivals and shrines originate (if you look into it, you will also find quite a few other penis and even some vagina shrines–the latter don’t receive as much fame and fortune as their phallic counterparts unfortunately, but they are there). The male and female bodies weren’t seen as scandalous in many cases (although there is much of a difference in thought between the elite and the vulgar classes), and, as an example, public baths were often not separated. It wasn’t until Japan was basically ridiculed by the West for being vulgar and barbaric for such open displays of sexuality, that, similar to what happened in many of the European colonies at roughly the same time period, pushed the country to emulate the Victorian Era West (and I assume we all know roughly what that’s like). Basically, Victorian shade made Japan zip up its pants.
I highly suggest tracing a bit of the history of shunga, erotica that usually took the form of woodblock printing, and what I see as an appropriate exemplar for the topic, for a deeper look into way of thinking (if you would prefer a more brief rundown, check out this link). Shunga had been prevalent for centuries, depicting everything from masturbation (of both sexes) to orgies to farting competitions to male-male (although not so much female-female) sexual pursuits and acts; it is also the beginning of the infamous tentacle porn and often used as a form of satire and criticism of society. It was once banned by the national government, and is now not technically forbidden, but holds an intense stigma and is seen as taboo by a large portion of the population; indeed, many of the best exhibitions of shunga are found outside of Japan. (For more information regarding a historical look at the Japanese attitude towards sex, I recommend “Pink Samurai” by Nicholas Bornoff, although mostly only for the historical context and not the modern one [despite what it touts].)
Therefore, there is no denying that is a clear paradox in modern Japanese attitudes towards sexuality–the government is flipping out about its rapidly declining population, sex education is more or less on par with what I received in America (which was not too far off from “If you have sex, you will get pregnant/chlamydia and die,” although I presume the Japanese version is “If you have sex, you will fail your exams and have no future”), and a prominent “grass-eating” male (and female) population disillusioned with and disinterested in sex. This is a very confusing time for Japan (if not the world). However, it must be remembered that this is all, in the history of the ancient country, very recent phenomena, and that the origins of these two festivals which I will commence discussing predate all of this.
Now, for the real crux of this post: which penis festival is better?
Location & Vendors
I have to flat-out vote for Honen Matsuri on this one. They got it right by choosing a small town right outside a major hub–this means there was space. The shrine itself was pretty small, and you definitely needed to get there early in order to pat the penis and rub the balls at the main shrine (more on that below), but it had large grounds. Vendors greeted you at the station and dotted along the path to the festival area, at which rows and rows of stalls selling food and knick-knacks were lined up. Get your phallus-carved sticks, your very clothed man and woman sculptures with a *ahem* surprise to be revealed when you turned them over and looked under their robes, and more. Eat your choco-banana with the tip slightly carved and little cookie balls stuck on the bottom, your “grilled precious treasure” (a fancy take on a hot dog), and your penis- (and a few vagina-) shaped hard candies galore. They also had many non-genital-like food vendors there in case you just wanted some grilled squid or takoyaki. I furthermore had the time to pick up a few omamori and get my first daikichi omikuji (best luck fortune).
Furthermore, even though there were a ton of people there, there was ample room for spill-over. The roads were wide and parking lots were ample, and the shrine itself was not gated, so it was a very free, open space. The parade took place in an open area lined with trees and grass, and while you did have to elbow a few people to get a good spot, you could get a good spot.
On the other hand, the Kanamara Matsuri was an absolute disaster in terms of population control. The shrine is tiny and gated smack dab in the middle of the capital city of an incredibly populous prefecture just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo. This meant that vendors were few–only one was selling phallic-shaped hard candy, and there were only about 5 other tents within the grounds selling anything at all–and NO choco-bananas! (Although they did have a few T-shirt vendors, which was cool.) They simply had no space. Which, being right outside Tokyo, is not good. Sure, Nagoya is the 4th most populated city (about 2.3 million people), but Yokohama and Tokyo, which Kawasaki falls right in between, are the two most populous cities in the country (roughly 17.1 million people combined). This doesn’t even take into account the number of tourists passing through just for the events–I would estimate the number of clearly non-Japanese people to be at about 1/3 to 2/3 of the attendees. Therefore, it simply does not work.
We got there early-ish at around 10:15 and were able to enter the shrine grounds no problem. The problems came after–to get a shuin (official shrine stamp in a special book), my friend had to wait in line for over an hour. I saw the lines for the hard candies, and decided just to not even bother. I don’t even know what the omamori looked like for this shrine, it was impossible to get through the crowd to see. While wondering around the tiny shrine grounds waiting for my friend, I noticed that the police were roping off the entrance to the shrine and only periodically letting people in it was already so crowded. This was even worse as we walked by the shrine a few hours later thinking we would go back in and buy a souvenir towel, which turned out to be a preposterous idea once we saw what the line had grown to be–basically snaking around the entire front and side of the shrine and extending almost to the station. I didn’t get a picture of the line, but refer to my Google Map rendition. It would have taken hours just to get back into the shrine grounds, not to mention even longer waiting in line for the souvenirs (if there still were any left), and then even longer to catch a train back to Tokyo (I left the Honen Matsuri right after the final event ended in the evening, so essentially the rush hour, and it took about 3 trains coming and going for me to finally get aboard one; I don’t even want to imagine what it would have been like to try that at the Kanamara Matsuri).
Honen (Nagoya) > Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)
At the main shrine, Tagata Jinja (Honen Matsuri) went all out. The main-event giant penis which would be carried in the parade was shrouded in shadow in the back, a mysterious, grand figure that you can see but not touch (just yet). However, there was another medium-sized penis that greeted you right around the rope bell that was said to bring you good luck if you rubbed it. Little (or in the case of reality, more realistic/only somewhat larger than real) penises were tastefully erected around the wooden shrine, like they were doing a little dance. Right on the other side of the main shrine was a pair of two big, black, stone balls that you stood in line to rub, which would also bring good things to you. Stocky, stone phalluses were also lined up in a grand gesture to the sacred balls.
The ema were refreshingly blunt and took a “say it like we see it” attitude. I’ll just leave the image here.
Wakamiya Hachimangu (Kanamara) tried, but wasn’t as bold or tastefully decorated. They were basically just like, “Whelp, here’s our big, pink dick,” and stuck the main event penis on the float in the middle of a random part of the shrine grounds for people to mob around and take pictures of/with. It was solid bubblegum pink and did have testicles attached, but otherwise was pretty lacking on the details. The same went with the smaller shiny, black penis. There weren’t any unmentionables to mention about the main shrine–it was surprisingly genital-free. In a couple other places there were toddler/elementary school age child-sized penises (I counted 2) just randomly sticking out of the ground for people to ride and take pictures of, but that was about it. Their structure to hang the ema had a few penises protruding from under the eaves, but the ema were also disappointingly euphemistic–a censored Momotaro, a mother dog breastfeeding her pups, and a couple others of that sort. They also had the classic “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkey trio with two additions: “transmit no evil” and “receive no evil” (referring to STIs), which was a nice call. However, it was still not enough to redeem the whole shrine.
Honen (Nagoya) > Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)
The main event at both festivals is the parade of the giant penis–both of which were mentioned in the above section.
As stated before, the Honen Matsuri parade takes place along a certain natural environment leading to shrine grounds (although the path of the parade changes depending on if it is an odd- or even-numbered year. For reference again, I went in 2014). The path is long with ample open space for people to gather and watch the procession, which includes some shrine workers displaying very detailed penis flags, shrine maidens carrying wooden penises the size of babies (even more fortune to you if you get to rub those), and the main hauling of the giant, latitudinal, wooden penis shaft, which looks amazingly realistic, and is really a work of art in itself, poking out of its special mikoshi–it comes right at you! Once the penis is safely at its intended destination, jolly workers (or at least I so presume) hand out free little cups of sake.
Unfortunately I missed the actual parade for Kanamara because we were still waiting for my friend to get his shuin, and by the time it started, I had also distracted myself with carving a penis into a large radish (more on that below). However, you can see Rocket News 24’s photo article to get an idea of what went down. They took the three longitudinal penises to a park, and then back I presume. There was also an announcer saying that people could join in the parade if they went to a certain area of the shrine to prepare, but I’m not entirely clear what that entailed. In any case, it just seems to be the movement of those 3 floats.
Honen (Nagoya) > Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)
As you may be able to tell, I was getting pretty frustrated at the Kanamara Matsuri–mostly due to circumstances and my previous experience with the Honen Matsuri. And now I have come to my final category.
Besides eating and watching the parade, the final main event of the Honen Matsuri was the annual mochi throwing. As Wikipedia describes it, “Everyone then gathers in the square outside Tagata Jinja and waits for the mochi nage, at which time the crowd is showered with small rice cakes which are thrown down by the officials from raised platforms.” As I describe it: it is a death-facing hell-scape where if the bricks of hard, dried mochi being pelted from meters above don’t kill you, the raging gaijin (+Japanese people) will as they desperately try to push and trample you to get their hands on the not-special-at-all mochi. It sounds fun, but if you’re not a bulky bear of a human, it’s terrifying. And you can’t even get into the fetal position because you will definitely not be able to get up. You can’t escape once you’re corralled in the mochi throwing ring, and if you’re not aggressive or big enough, good luck getting your hands on the mochi. If this were special mochi, like with a special flavor or 10,000 yen notes in the middle, all the road-rage would be understandable. However, you’re just risking a concussion and cuts and bruises for a block of pounded white rice you could just buy at the supermarket.
On the other hand, while not necessarily something that would be in a guidebook for Kanamara, there was a little old lady who I’m sure is there every single year that absolutely made my day. I would put her at around 70 years old with the front part of her hair dyed red and the rest orange, and she was sitting on the side of one of the shrines with a giant pile of daikon (large Japanese radishes) and a pile of daikon carved into penises. I had just happened to come across her while waiting for my friend to get ever closer in the shuin line, and I assumed you had to wait in a large line or pay some fee to make a carving, or that maybe she carved them for you. Well was I wrong, because she shouted out to me to carve one for free. She not only asked, but she really pushed that anyone around her little territory carve one, as she shouted out time after time at startled Japanese and foreigners in an enthusiastic mix of broken English and Japanese that “this isn’t just an event to watch–you have to participate!”
I decided to give it a go and waited for a few words of instruction. However, it seems to be against ever fiber of her being to give instructions regarding how to carve a penis in a radish. I was given a daikon and a knife and told to just go for it.
“Where do I cut it?” I asked of the radish top (which essentially decided the length of your carving object).
“Wherever you like,” she said with a wink. (Later she took the green tops and announced that they look like pubes, demonstrating how right she was by sticking the radish tops and putting them over her crotch area.)
Her only advice? I’ll quote directly what she said to a couple of foreign-looking girls as they took up their radishes after me: “You! Boyfriend! [*Commence a lot of hand whirling and swirling above the head to convey “use your imagination/memory.”*]” Oddly enough based on what I saw, it was only women who were trying their hands at radish penis carving.
Despite the flawless and incredibly realistic pile of carved daikon sitting in front of the little old woman (as she took swigs of her Strong cherry chuuhai), carving them was actually really hard–all puns intended. I was struggling for a good ten minutes–first the tip was too sharp, but then once I tried to smooth it out it got too bumpy, then it got too sharp again, then too lumpy–and decided to put the knife down once I realized my friend in the shuin line was about done and I wasn’t going to do this penis carving any more favors. When I asked her how long it took her to produce one of the high-quality shafts lying before her, she said, “Just about five minutes; I’ve been doing this for 30-some years!” Many more winks and hearty laughs ensued.
While I was partway through my work, I convinced one of my male friends (who outwardly expressed his horror and criticism at my creation) to do a carving as well. He gave up before me, after only a couple minutes. Once we finished, we handed them to the lady who carved our names into them and set them into a pile before her, but only after we requested a picture with them together, to which she readily agreed. “No, no, no! You need to stick your tongue out like this!” she insisted once she saw we were making normal picture faces and showed us a perfect model of what she would like us to do. I complied, but my friend was disappointingly too “shy.”
“We will take this pile and offer them to the main shrine,” she explained. “Then they will turn into gods!”
“You!” she immediately then shouted in English at a giggling gaijin girl keeping a short distance from the daikon area, while gesturing to the vegetables, “Cut! Like boyfriend!”
Honen (Nagoya) < Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)
Clearly, I enjoyed the Honen Matsuri much more than the Kanamara Matsuri, although that is not to say that the latter isn’t worth going to. I would recommend spending the whole day at the Honen Matsuri with a group of friends–there is plenty to do and see (people watching is, as expected, excellent at both), and there’s enough food to keep you satisfied until the end (maybe watch the mochi throwing from the sidelines, however). The Kanamara Matsuri isn’t without its perks, but I would recommend stopping by as early as possible–maybe around 9 in the morning (don’t even bother getting there after 11)–with a very small group of friends, getting your giggles in, and heading out, especially since the parade doesn’t seem to be anything that you can’t view from the shrine anyways. The area around the shrine is really interesting and bustling in any case, and there is an exquisite temple in the park just a couple blocks away that also has a few food stalls and otherwise cool-ness going on (and even more people watching). I would definitely go back to Honen Matsuri again when I’m in the area; I can’t say I’d say the same for the Kanamara Matsuri, but I am in any case glad I went once to check it out.
This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.