Kawasaki Fertility Festival

Originally published in the Clear Lake Courier — June 17, 1998

Cherry blossom time in Japan (early April) means the coming of spring and the opportunity to socialize outdoors after a long winter. One common celebration is a Buddhist fertility festival, established in ancient times to welcome spring and pray for a good harvest. Today people offer prayers for such wishes as success in business, fertile marriages, healthy children and personal health.

To experience one of these festivals, I joined four busloads of Americans (adults only) from NAF Atsugi on Easter Sunday. We went to the town of Kawasaki for the annual Kanamara Matsuri (Festival Of the Steel Phallus).

This particular festival, now one of the largest in Japan, originated in the 1800s. Kawasaki’s ladies of the night would gather baskets of bamboo shoots and other spring delicacies, carry a phallic image in procession through the streets, and end the day with a banquet in the courtyard of the Wakamiya Shrine. They prayed for success in their business and protection from syphilis.

We got off the bus and walked in the direction the driver showed us on a roughly drawn map. Following the map, I came to a walled shrine that covered four city blocks and contained several temples. Since it was still early, I wandered past the various souvenir and food booths while waiting for the festival to begin. I had heard about X-rated displays, but didn’t see any.

The schedule called for a kindling of the sacred fire and a religious ceremony with a chief priest and community leaders officiating. But 11:00 went by and nothing happened. Since all signs and conversations were in Japanese, I continued to wander until I saw someone from our Atsugi group. Then I learned I was at the wrong location. The Wakamiya Shrine was four blocks up the street. I had spent the morning at the Kawasaki Daishi Temple.

Phallus On my way to the Wakamiya Shrine, I came across the parade. It consisted of four floats and assorted marchers, including Atsugi Americans. Each float contained an upright phallus on a throne, mounted on wooden runners and carried by several dozen men and a few women. The front one was easy to spot from a distance–bright pink and six feet high.

Hearing loud music and seeing a jovial crowd overflowing from the area around a small temple, I knew I had found the festival. At the outer edge were typical flea market vendors selling their wares. I made my way through the crowd to peer at the contents of the booths inside.

There were the penis-shaped candies and souvenirs I hadn’t seen at the first temple. One booth sold flashlights and squirt guns with 6-inch pink plastic “extensions.” Another offered small statues of copulating couples, ranging in price from 1000-9500 yen ($7-70). Beer and food were also sold.

The singing was atrocious and I wondered if that was the only English-speaking band available for hire. Then I realized it was karaoke — Americans were singing with the Japanese band.

A small fertility shrine near the main temple drew a steady procession of people. Most individuals tossed in a coin, bowed, rang the bell and prayed briefly. A 3-foot-high black metal phallus at the edge of the shrine attracted attention. Japanese people ran their hands over the top for good luck. Americans posed with it for humorous photographs.

At the entrance to the festival grounds sat what looked at first glance like two wooden cannons. But they weren’t cannons. They also provided photo opportunities.

The male sex organ has traditionally been a pagan symbol of fertility and good health, symbolizing the generative power in nature. (Since male fertility is meaningless without a female, that seems a bit unfair.)
That ancient attitude is illustrated by Yin and Yang, a Chinese philosophy that believes destinies are influenced by the interaction of two principles–the negative, dark and feminine Yin and the positive, light and masculine Yang.

For me to enjoy the festival, I had to look past its literal message, which promulgated male domination and female unworthiness. Most participants seemed to be unaware of those underlying meanings. Men and women alike prayed to a phallus, marched in the parade and celebrated the day.

The Wakamiya Shrine contained a fertility museum dedicated solely to one object. The tiny room was filled with sculptures of phalluses in various materials and sizes, with an occasional one on a throne. This museum was recommended for making prayers for personal fertility. One Japanese woman said her friends had gone there to pray and soon afterward got pregnant.

For the Japanese this was a religious festival and a celebration of spring. For the Americans it was an opportunity to have a party. And for me, once was enough.

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