Painted Maidens Aren’t Always What They Seem


Spring always reminds me of the years I spent in Japan. The damp chill of Tokyo winter gives way to gentle warmth. There’s a sense of optimism in the way people walk, and a smile hovers at the corners of every mouth. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

In Japan, spring is also the season for festivals. Most celebrate nature, renewal, and transformation. Those may seem like innocent topics, but as every traveler knows, you sometimes get a little more than you bargained for.

Allow me to paint you a picture of a festival I attended back in the halcyon days of 2002. Imagine for a moment that it’s you in these shoes, rather than me…

You’ve decided to visit the city of Kawasaki, on the southern fringes of Tokyo, simply to pass the time. The air is fragrant with the scent of cherry blossoms, and trees are bursting with their delicate white blooms. The sun warms your skin and practically urges you to take an innocent stroll.

festival1.jpgYou wander down narrow a street, your mind dancing along springtime thoughts like a butterfly flitting in the breeze. Close to Kawasaki Daishi station your ears prick up at the sound of drums and chanting. You’ve stumbled upon a festival.

The noise and the increasing crowd draw you to Wakiyama Hachiman-gu, a local Shinto shrine. You’re about to cross the street when the procession begins. Your timing couldn’t be better.

The shrine attendants and local dignitaries pass under the gate and out into the street. Here comes the first o-mikoshi (portable shrine). You pull out your camera and prepare to take some great travel photos. But… wait a minute… You chuckle nervously to yourself. Your mind must be wandering with springtime thoughts. It couldn’t possibly be…. My God!

You don’t know whether to laugh or run as a group of ten very un-feminine drag queens clad in shimmering pink kimono trudges towards you, grunting and swaying beneath the tremendous weight of a giant pink penis. This is followed by another o-mikoshi, a long thin wooden black phallus. Pardon the pun, but there’s much more to come.

festival2.jpgThe Kanamara Matsuri has become a yearly focal point for Tokyo area gays, lesbians and drag queens to come out and strut their stuff. Shinto has always been a non-judgmental religion when it comes to matters of sex and morality. During the Edo period (1603-1867) the area around the shrine was home to a large number of brothels. Prostitutes came to the shrine to pray for the prevention of syphilis. With the advent of HIV/AIDS the focus of the shrine has broadened.

Straight couples also go to Wakiyama Hachiman-gu to pray for fertility and for help in starting a family. It’s considered good luck to ride the phallus shaped see-saw, or to rub the various penis-shaped objects strewn about the shrine grounds.

I have to admit that I clutched my girlfriend a little closer when I realized what we’d stumbled into. And maybe I used her as a human shield, a sort of “moral prophylactic,” if you will. But I was just paranoid, and there was really no need. We were welcome there, just as anyone was who came armed with a smile. (I could say that they welcomed all comers–but that would be in poor taste.)

festival3.jpgWhatever your sexual orientation, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood at this time of year, I urge you to go. The Kanamara Matsuri is a raucous, cheerful festival full of dirty jokes and the crack-hiss of beer cans. A group of colorful drag queens picnics on a blanket in the middle of the shrine gardens, basking in the rapt attention of curious camera-toting Japanese. Vendors sell cock-shaped candies and lollipops. Red-faced, tipsy old men ogle uniform clad schoolgirls as they pose suggestively in front of the shrine’s icons. Shy couples hold hands and giggle nervously. One of the day’s central events is the auctioning off of daikon (giant radishes) carved in the shape of, you guessed it, enormous dicks.

It’s a fun filled day of drunken camaraderie where gay and straight link arms and drink to fornication and to enormous pink genetalia. If a better subject exists for building cross-cultural bonds, I don’t know what it is.




About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • And maybe I used her as a human shield, a sort of “moral prophylactic,”
    I know this feeling from my first visit of the CSD in Cologne…. especially when the group of the big hairy black-leathered bears passed some of them riding on the hood of a huge Johnny Deer tractor.

  • Nice post! I went to the Kanamara Matsuri a few years ago when I lived in Yokohama. It was great fun, and I bought tons of phallic souvenirs (they had penis-shaped everything for sale in the little stalls) for my friends.
    Now that the Sakura Matsuri are over pretty much everywhere in Japan and spring is gettin’ sprung, we’re starting to get ramped up for the festival season – always my favorite time of year. There are a lot of “colorful” festivals like this one in little towns and wards all over Japan, but the less out-there festivals are also crazy fun.
    Japanese people spend so much time acting out roles that society give them. It great to see them come out of their shells at a festival (beats an office nomikai any day) and dance and sing and actually laugh. The free-flowing alcohol doesn’t hurt the mood either.

  • Andreas – YIKES! The combination of tractors and leather masks is just wrong, somehow.
    Andy – Thanks very much for sharing that. You brought back many memories of Japan. It was such an interesting place to live. I haven’t been back since i quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Mongolia in 2002. But I will make my return this coming September. I’m really looking forward to it.
    Do you do much hiking over there? Japan is one of the best countries I’ve been to for hiking opportunities. Great trails everywhere, and excellent topo maps for every region of the country. It was one of the cheapest and best ways I found to pass a weekend in what can be a ridiculously expensive country.

  • Crikey Ryan, reading this blog was so enlightening. I worked for Shiseido for 10 years and traveled to Japan all the time. That was back in my “very conservative, church going, married” days and I also stumbled into the Kanamara Matsuri! I was completely bewildered by all the “dicks” – especially given the excruciatingly conservative demeanor of Japanese in the workplace. Thank you for clearing that up after all these years…………


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