Every year on the first Sunday of April in Kawasaki, Japan, one might cross paths with a peculiar sight — a succession of enormous erect penises parading down the street under the strength of men in traditional female garb.
This year, photographer B.A. Van Sise was in attendance of the annual Festival of the Steel Phallus, a regional tradition dating back to the 17th century that today serves as a platform for the benefit of HIV research. Here, Van Sise shares his experience and some of the history behind what is perhaps the most phallic festival in the world.
Early April in Kawasaki, Japan, is set aside for the Kanamara Matsuri, or the festival of the steel phallus, in which a hundred thousand revelers come here to celebrate one thing: the male organ. Home to the Kanayama Jinja Shrine, Kawasaki, southwest of Tokyo, has been closely tied to the male anatomy for centuries, due to a persistent local legend, so its famed Shinto shrine to the relic of a steel phallus was, well, erected.
Legend holds that a jealous, red-faced, sharped-tooth demon hid in the vagina of a goddess and then bit off, to their great surprise, the penises of her first two husbands. History forgets to mention why she failed to warn the second guy.
Finally a third, more determined suitor, a blacksmith, created an iron phallus that broke the demon’s teeth; the man won over the beautiful woman while the demon presumably returned back to the ether to receive quite the lecture from his orthodontist.
The shrine is humble but has stood the test of time. Made of old stone and boasting a small but pretty network of traditional orange torii gates, it was built in roughly 698 CE — but is now more famously home to the festival — in prim and proper Japan, an unusual but charming celebration of the sacred and the profane.
While beautifully frocked Shinto priests in the shrine celebrate the thousands-year-old god, long worshiped by prostitutes fearing disease and pilgrims worried for their fertility, a different sort of celebration is going on outside, as tens, if not hundreds of thousands of partiers take to the streets.
Revelers carry penis lollipops (funny to look at, but not particularly tasty), phallic vegetables, and enough whimsical toys to stock a year’s worth of Las Vegas bachelorette parties. They enjoy them all while snapping not-quite-ready-for-Instagram selfies and watching a parade of all of Kawasaki’s manliest men, struggling to carry a bunch of giant junk through the street.
Local families and businesses work for months to make the enormous genitals carried on the shoulders of teams of men through Kawasaki’s tight streets. Three, in total, are carried around town; two are of metal and one, true to Japan’s contemporary anime-loving culture, is of the cheery, bubblegum-hued cartoon variety, and lofted by 18 fellows wearing glitter and fantastic makeup.
For the prudish, it might be hard to see, but it does have its benefits: These days, sales from the festival — penis clothing, candy, food, toys — rake in gobs of money every year, put duly to work toward HIV research.
This year marks a half century for the festival in its modern form. Visitors wanting to see it themselves, and unafraid to face the throbbing masses, can make it to Kawasaki from Tokyo in an easy day trip on the first Sunday of April, any year, and see for themselves the giant phalluses of Kawasaki — and the many men who get them up.