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Wakamiya Hachiman-gu Shrine (若宮八幡宮) is a little Shinto shrine to the war god Hachiman, located in the suburbs of Kawasaki between Tokyo and Yokohama. The grounds are small, the gardens are in poor shape, and the architecture is unimposing. Even the name is generic, as wakamiya (literally "young prince") in this context means "son of god", meaning that the shrine is a newer branch of a larger one. The only reason it is known outside the immediate neighboorhood is that the shrine has an interesting legend attached to it, resulting in a rather peculiar deity as well...

The Legend

Once upon a time, but in a land not very far away if you happen to live in Tokyo, there lived a beautiful princess. (Well, actually she was an innkeeper's daughter, but close enough.) But alas, an evil demon with sharp teeth had taken a liking to her. The demon had courted the girl, but she had stayed pure, and one day the demon learned that the girl was engaged to be married the very next day. So that night, the demon snuck into her house and crawled right up inside her! Our heroine, terrified but helpless, told no-one and the marriage ceremony went ahead as planned... but on the night of the wedding, when her new husband tried to perform his conjugal duties for the first time, the demon's sharp teeth went snickety-snack! and the poor man was turned into a eunuch. And the tale tells us that her next husband met the same fate, although the details of how they conned the village idiot into marrying her have not passed down to us.

It was clear that things could not go on like this, and the whole village met to discuss the, shall we say, prickly issue. After extensive deliberations, a candle lit up over the blacksmith's head: "Why not," he said, "why not deflower the girl with an iron phallus?" The metal tool was duly made and tested, and upon chomping down the demon found that it had bitten off more than it could chew; whimpering, it crawled out and slunk off to hide in a dark corner and nurse its broken teeth. The blacksmith married the girl and they all lived happily ever after... except the demon and the two eunuchs, that is.

The Tourist Attraction

The end? Well of course not -- even back in the mukashi days, the courtesans' guild knew a good idea for promoting tourism when they saw one. The iron phallus was enshrined as a god under the name Kanamara-sama (金まら様), "Lord Big Iron Penis", and the shrine grounds not only feature a proudly erect kanamara statue a meter long, but there is also a free sex museum featuring old Japanese erotic and pornographic art, and a shrine souvenir shop selling various phallic charms. (The museum may not be open in the off-season, but the shopkeeper will be glad to open it up if you ask.)

However, while the shrine is free and open all year around, the best time to visit is during the Kanamara Matsuri Festival, which -- at time of writing, but confirm with the Tokyo Tourist Information Office -- takes place yearly on the Sunday closest to April 15. (Lonely Planet briefly mentions this, but gets both shrine name and festival date wrong.) The festival proceedings are much like any Japanese festival, with traditional music, festive foods, lots of sake, shrine-carrying and the works, except that the mikoshi (portable shrines) all have various incarnations of Kanamara bobbing up and down, the stalls sell all sorts of sexual paraphernalia (buy some penis candy for the folks back home!) and the crowd has an unusually high incidence of gaijin and various sexual minorities. It's all great fun though, and definitely worth a visit if you're in town at the right time.

Getting There

The shrine is accessible on public transport, although getting there requires a bit of effort. First, get to Keikyu Kawasaki (京急川崎) station, either on the Keihin line from Shinagawa (on the Yamanote Line) or Yokohama, or via the immediately adjacent JR Kawasaki station. Then change to the Kawasaki Daishi (川崎大師) line and go 3 stops out to Kawasaki Daishi station. The total one-way fare from Shinagawa will be around 300 yen and should take about half an hour.

Once at the station, take the only exit and turn right, then just walk along the curving road for a block or two and you'll spot the shrine on your right. During festival time, the shrine is especially easy to find, as the road from the station is full of fluttering flags featuring erect penises. Should you turn left instead and pass through the shopping arcade, you'll end up at the far grander and almost entirely untouristed grounds of the Kawasaki Daishi Buddhist temple, which is well worth a visit but, alas, doesn't have any penises on public display.

The Other Story

And for all you stick-in-the-muds, there is an alternate history for the shrine as well: Wakamiya Hachimangu is one of Japan's many ancient fertility shrines, the most celebrated of which is probably Tagata Jinja. While worshippers originally visited the shrine to pray to the gods for children, Kawasaki -- being an old way station of the Tokaido road across Japan -- is also a long-standing center of prostitution, and among the prostitutes the shrine acquired a reputation for being able to protect against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. These days, the Japanese rely mostly on condoms, but shrine still sells charms both for fertility and for warding off mishaps.

Additional Reasons To Go

Reason one would be the transcript of an actual conversation at work, dated the Monday after my first visit:

ANNOYINGLY PERKY COWORKER: Well hi there! So whadja do last weekend?
YOURS TRULY: Oh, nothing much, just went to the Iron Penis Festival down in Kawasaki.
SUDDENLY LESS PERKY COWORKER: ...oh. Um. Well. Eh-heh. I'll be. Well, see you around, heh-heh...

Second place goes to a picture of a certain female acquaintance fondly hugging Kanamara; third place goes to explaining that picture and the others I took at the festival to my grandparents.

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