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That’s Exactly What you Thought: A Photo Report from the Genitals Festival

Every first week of April one can see the usually restrained and respectful Japanese carrying huge penises — wooden, iron, colorful — along the streets of Tokyo. People wear penis costumes, tourists buy penis-shaped candles, and kids enjoy penis- and vulva-shaped lollipops. The Kanamara Matsuri festival is afoot. And it’s actually not about sexuality at all. Every year, the festival attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world. The French photographer Brice Dossin was one of them.

The history of the Kanamara Matsuri festival is full of legends. According to one of them, there once was a demon with razor-sharp teeth which fell in love with a woman. The demon was jealous of every man who came around the woman. When she got married, the demon hid inside her vagina and bit her husband’s penis clear off. To get rid of the demon, the woman went to a blacksmith and asked him to craft an iron penis for her, which will break the demon’s teeth.

Today, Kanamara Matsuri isn’t about sexuality and sexual health as such. It mostly helps to destigmatize the LGBT+ community. Besides, it attracts people who just want to have fun, dance, and spend some time together.

Brice Dossin

French photographer, lives and works in Paris. A participant in many modern photography exhibitions, including Let's Go Extinct, A Colorful Mirage, and Culturisme. An ambassador of the Month of French photography in 2017.

— I got into photography when I was a kid. We lived in a small town, where there was absolutely nothing to do. I used to wander along the streets till the day when I was hit by a car. After that, my parents were afraid to let me go outside. So I started reading everything that I could find in the house. My dad had a lot of the Time-Life books, where photographers explained how to make a good shot, how to work with perspective, and how to tell a story with your pictures. I really enjoyed looking through the photos, and I got more and more interested in other people and cultures.

As time went by, I started traveling to the big cities and exploring life on their streets. One spring, my girlfriend and I went to Japan. That was a long-planned journey, and its main goal was to see Sakura trees blooming. But not long before our departure, I came across an online article about the Kanamara Matsuri festival. I found out that it was a penis festival and couldn’t help but wonder what did they mean by that.

One thing I love about Japan is how baffling it is. Tokyo might look like your typical metropolis, but at its core, there are long-standing traditions and unique cultures, incomprehensible to European tourists.

Take, for instance, the Kanamara Matsuri festival. It’s a bizarre mix of religion and blatant burlesque. Penises are all over the place. People wear penis costumes, tourists buy penis-shaped candles, and kids enjoy penis- and vulva-shaped lollipops. And there is nothing erotic about it, people just want to have fun.

Kids enjoy penis- and vulva-shaped lollipops and there is nothing erotic about it.

The festival takes place in the ancient shrine of Kanayama, located in Kawasaki. During the Edo period in the 17th century, the Tokaido trade route connected Tokyo and Kyoto. The traders were traveling back and forth through Kawasaki. As a result, a lot of taverns and brothels popped up in the city, followed by a fully-fledged red lights district. The Kanayama shrine became a place where prostitutes came to ask gods for protection from STDs. Later, it would attract married couples, who could not conceive a child and wanted to pray in a place with strong sexual energy. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the monks tried to hold festivals dedicated to sexual health. But the tradition hadn’t stuck until 1970 when the priest named Hirohiko Nakamura started annual processions with penis-shaped figures. In 2012, an LGBT+ activist and prominent public figure Matsuko Deluxe attended the festival, putting “the penis parade” on the tourists’ maps.

The crowds at Kanamara Matsuri are truly impressive. On regular days, the monastery premises can accommodate up to a hundred lazy passers-by. But on the day of the festival, that number skyrockets to 30, 000 viewers and participants. People crowd the streets to watch the religious procession, which is the central event of Kanamara Matsuri. At noon, following the mysterious ceremony in the monastery, a group of locals carries three giant penises — a pink one, a wooden one, and an iron one — along the street. Priests, geisha, little girls in traditional outfits and demon-masked people go alongside.

It may sound ridiculous, but Kanamara Matsuri is not about sexuality, it’s about community. It gives people a chance to spend time together, relax, and have fun. For a succession of years, the festival has been organized by the local LGBT+ representatives. They are proud that their efforts help destigmatize not only queer people, but Kawasaki itself. Previously known for its red lights district, the city now receives another visiting card — a festival that condemns violence and discrimination.

Kanamara Matsuri is not about sexuality, it’s about community. It gives people a chance to spend time together, relax, and have fun.

I don’t think that tourists ruin the festival’s authenticity. The viewers respectfully follow Kanamara Matsuri’s ancient rules. Besides, every year tourists spent a lot of money here, buying penis-shaped souvenirs. The raised funds are then transferred to charity. For example, one of the most popular contests includes carving penis-shaped figures of local vegetables. The figures are then sold at the auction and the money is transferred to the Fund to Fight AIDS.

Kanamara Matsuri was a festival of fertility in the first place. But now the focus shifts to LGBT+ communities and STDs. The only things that stay the same are the festival’s jubilant atmosphere and a huge number of penises around.

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