March 2016: Japan is one of my favorite countries. Even though it is one of the most developed countries in the world, it has managed to retain its very unique culture. For this reason, traveling in Japan is still a very exotic and fascinating experience. One demonstration of Japan’s truly unique culture is the Kawasaki penis festival or Shinto Kanamara Matsuri.

In early April, I traveled with two friends from the USA to Japan to attend the festival and met up with two other friends living in Tokyo. The main goal of the trip was to attend the penis festival. But before going to the festival we explored Tokyo and Nagano first.

 

To Nagano in the Japanese Alps

We wanted to venture outside of Tokyo and see some of the countryside and Nagano with its snow monkeys and easy access from Tokyo via the bullet train or Shinkansen was a great option. The train was cheap, fast and provided great views of Japan from the window. We stopped by a Lawsons convenience store before the trip and picked up some Strong’s (alcoholic energy drinks), sushi and whatever other awesome snacks we could find. Lawsons is a bonanza of awesomeness.

 

Evan in front of our Shinkansen train

1400 Year Old Nagano Zenko-Ji Buddhist Temple

We stayed in a traditional Japanese Hotel-Ryokan with tatami-matted rooms that was located near the Zenko-Ji Buddhist temple. We booked a room that was large enough to house all of us. The food, and traditional dining experience was incredible. Since we were so close to the Buddhist temple and because we were so enamored with its ornate wooden architecture and statues, we paid it multiple visits. The most interesting part of the temple was the ynderground tunnels that were deisnged to emulate hell. For about 20 minutes we wandered the dark tunnels feeling our way though to the end in complete, pitch blackness. 

 

Miguel in Our Ryokan room

Japanese toilet that opens/closes automatically, with a seat warmer and a built in bidet with multiple settings. 

Worshippers in the Buddhist Temple Praying

Giant ancient wooden statues of Buddhist Mythology lining the streets on the way to the temple

Temple at night

Buddha shrines in the temple

Snow Monkeys Basking in Hot Springs

Nagano is surrounded by snowcapped mountains blanketed in forests. In those forests there are rare and exotic endemic wildlife. One of which is the snow monkey or Japanese Macaque. The Japanese macaque is the primate, besides humans, that is found in the most northerly latitudes of the world. It is easy to reach the snow monkey reserve, where the hot springs and snow monkeys that bathe in them are located. They are easily reached by public transport. A bus will take you to the drop off point on the side of the road where you can walk into the reserve. From the entrance, there is a nice walk along a forested canyon for a few miles before you arrive at the hot springs. The reserve is located in the mountains and the monkeys are wild and free to go as they wish. The hot springs are natural but are diverted from streams to artificial pools for the convenience of the monkeys. We made sure to get to the reserve early to beat the tourists and have the monkeys for ourselves. The reserve is popular and can get crowded around mid-day. It was a lot of fun to sit next to the monkey’s, who are mostly oblivious to your presence, as they groomed each other while basking in the hot springs. The monkeys had a clear pecking order and every once in a while, a fight would break out between them in order to restore the rightful order of things.  The monkeys also as all monkeys tend to be, kleptos, and anyone who would set their bag or food down on the ground would soon regret it.

 

Snow Monkeys Grooming Each in Hot Springs

Snow Monkeys Drinking in Hot Springs

This big alpha male sat on the edge of his bathe staring me down. Within the reflection of his eyes, I can see myself taing his photo

The Tokyo Robot Show

I first learned of the robot show from Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain was blown away by the experience in his show and it was easy to understand why. The show is a total assault on the senses, and it is one of those bizarre experiences that you can only find in Japan. The moment you walk into the multi-colored hallways you feel like you are on the world’s best acid trip. The show itself is in a small arena, where the guests are packed up next to the small stage. But on this small stage, they put on a huge show of robot dinosaurs, bikini clad girls singing in ear-piercing high-pitched voices holding machine guns, pyrotechnic explosions, and just a lot of robots and other weird giant figures going in and out of the stage. It is pure awesome madness, and I had no idea what any of it actually meant but it didn’t matter.

 

Entrance to Robot Show

One of the dancing robots in the show

Indian Headdresses, Robotic Girls, Heavy Metal……….

Just a small snapshot of Robot Show..

Now to the Penis Festival

The festival has been held on an annual basis at the Kanayama Shinto Shrine in Kawasaki usually on the first Sunday of April, since 1969 and in some fashion or another since the 17th century. The shrine venerates a Shinto fertility God, and the penis represents fertility, good luck and protection against sexually transmitted diseases. The Penis is the main event in the festival and a giant steel penis is paraded by monks and volunteers from the shrine and through the streets of Kawasaki.

The festival is inspired by a legend of a prostitute who lived during medieval times. There are many different variations of this legend depending on who you ask. This is one of them. The prostitute one day to leave her life as a prostitute, get married and have a baby. However, she was unable to do so due to a demon that was lurking within her vagina. The demon would keep gnawing off the penis of the men she slept with. Then one of her suiters devised the idea of designing a steel penis, which he inserted into her subsequently breaking the jaws of the demon and rendering it powerless and easily removed from her vagina. She and the man were able to have a family and the woman went on to become a Shinto saint and her legend is venerated by the festival by keeping the giant 7-foot steep penis under wraps in the shrine until the festival, one day a year when it is carried through the streets.

The festival is among 3 similar ones held throughout Japan but from what I have read this is the best one. Thousands pour into attendance for the event and even though there are foreigners, most of the attendees are Japanese. The penis is definitely the main theme and there are venders selling everything from penis hats, penis ears, to penis lollipops with dozens of different flavors. It was strange to see hundreds of people from grandmas, men to little kids walking around so diligent about consuming their very realistic penis looking lollipops.

For most Japanese the festival is just good fun, and it isn’t meant to be perverse. On the most part it is mostly the American tourists I think that turn it into something dirty. Whatever it is, you can’t deny one thing, it is loads of fun and my friends and I had a great time walking around drinking beer openly in the streets while observing the outlandish crowd worshipping penis. Amazingly I didn’t observe any harrasment, no over the top obscene bahavior, and no arrests made. People were respectful to one another and the streets like always in Japan remained clean despite the large crowds. 

 

Shinto Monks

The festival kicks off when the Shinto monks make an announcement in Japanese commemorating the saint that the shrine is dedicated to. Then there is some drumming and chanting and the unveiling of the huge steel penis. As I tried to pay attention to ceremony, I found myself distracted by other attendees with penis lollipops. I ended up separated from my friends by the crowd as I stalked certain attendees with my SLR camera that were more animated with their tongues than others with their lollipops.

 

I bought several penis lolipops for souvenirs, not for consumption. One peculiar event hapanned when the Japanese man selling them asked me what flavors I wanted. I asked him what flavors are available. He ran down the listst,strawberry, cherry, chocalate….but what really seemed weird was when he described one of them as having the flavor, “normal.” I didn’t seek eloboration, bought my penis lolipops, one with a normal flavor and moved on. In addition to the steel penis, there are other ones on hand that are paraded through the streets. These ones are all equally as large. It was fun to photograph others posing next to them.

 

Penis Parade Float

Japanese girls practicing their skills

Japanese man posing with penis float

This Japanese man was dressed as a giant penis

Evan posing with a man dressed in drag

Foreign man enjoying his penis lollipop

A very realistic looking penis lollipop

The parade begins

Evan photo bombing a family photo with penis paraphanalia 

Penis lollipop selfies

And yes little kids with penis lollippops too. 

The Steel Penis

Evan posing with a Japanese lady

Evan and I decided to have fun and dress like goofballs for the event. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We both wore wigs and received some pretty puzzled looks on the subway on the way out to Kawasaki. In the end we had a blast and enjoyed mingling with the Japanese in attendance and posing for photos with one another. Thousands of people turned out for the event. I tried to be one of the volunteers to help carry the penis float on my shoulders in the parade but the crowd was too much to overcome.

In the end, the festival inspite of all of the penises, was good clean given the potential for things to go haywire considering the them of the event.  I couldn’t help but to wonder if the same would be true if the festival were held in the USA.

 

Evan and I

Picnic with Random Japanese Family in the Tokyo Cherry Blossoms Park

After Evan and I left the penis festival, we took the metro to Tokyo and wandered the streets slightly intoxicated with our stupid wigs. We came to a park with beautiful cherry blossoms blooming as Japanese families picnicked below them. It was a beautiful sight and as we walked by one family, we were invited to sit down and share their food. The family sat on top of a tarp spread out over the ground while cooking noodles and meat on a small portable grill while drinking beer and sake. I bought a sake bottle in the shape of a penis at the festival. It has soke in it, so I passed it around and everyone shared the sake. Everyone was such a good sport about it and we all laughed even though the communication wasn’t really possible with our language barrier. It was funny to watch as the grandma sipped the sake while holding the penis bottle in the other hand. 

 

Cherry Blossoms Park

Invited to a picnic

11 + 13 =

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