Penis lollypops at Japan's Kanamara festival come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For the timid, there are tiny pink wieners, maybe three inches long and only good for a quick fix. Throw down a few more yen and you can have the upgraded version, a smudgy six-inch block which will stand up to a few hours of solid licking.
The elderly lady standing across from me obviously doesn't do things by half measures she's clasping a candy wang that looks as if it's been hacked off a psychedelic porn star. After unwrapping its plastic covering, she sheepishly looks around before sticking out her tongue and taking a lick of its rainbow-coloured glans, to the delight of her kimono-clad companion.
We're in the thick of a very unusual procession. Just in front of us, a pack of drag queens is hoisting a gigantic pink penis sculpture above their heads. It dwarfs every other nearby phallus, even the one made from black stone which is leading the parade. As the cross-dressing scrum makes its way slowly down the road, a gaggle of camera-wielding tourists jostle each other for prime photo positions.
This is the Kanamara Matsuri, one of Japan's most unusual and notorious festivals, which takes place on the first Sunday of April each year, just outside Tokyo in the city of Kawasaki. It's a penis-venerating celebration which originated in the Edo period of Japan (1603-1867), when local prostitutes would come to the small suburban shrine and pray for good business and protection from venereal diseases. Each year when Japan's cherry blossoms bloomed, these women would carry a schlong-shaped object through the streets before settling in for a picnic in the shrine's courtyard.
Fast forward to the present day and things are more or less the same except for the addition of cross-dressing, European faces and a covers band churning through some of pop music's dodgier moments.
The drag queens, who are members of the Tokyo-based Elizabeth Club, have been participating in the festival for almost 30 years now. Chief among them is Atsuko Asano
, who originally convinced the Kanamara shrine's priest to let her cross-dressing brethren join the parade.
"We came to this town and saw the festival, and thought we'd like to participate. I asked the chief of the shrine if we could come along, and he said it was okay," Atsuko says, then points to the giant pink penis. "About 10 years ago, we made this by ourselves. At first we had a small wooden penis but we destroyed it."
It's a striking contrast to religious events in Australia or the US; the drag queens are the heart of the party and seem to be welcomed by everyone.
"We are very friendly, very open. The female or male members of this shrine, or anyone else, can enjoy our company," Atsuko says.
Three women soldiers from the US Navy are trailing along with the drag queens. It's only midday, but they've been dipping heavily into the ceremonial sake. "We came here for the cock. My husband's in Iraq right now, defending our country, so it's the only cock I'm going to get," one of them slurs.
Another of the trio is returning for her second Kanamara Matsuri. She's come to the festival with a serious purpose in mind to get pregnant. She's been trying for several years, and half-seriously hopes the festival can help her.
"I didn't get to touch the penis statue last year. But this year I'm touching it, I'm doing whatever it takes. I'm on a mission," she tells me.
The penis shrines eventually reach the temple and are set down with much fanfare, after which the temple officials stand on the steps and thank everyone for coming. The crowd spreads out through the grounds, which are draped in fully blooming cherry blossoms, and just about everyone who's old enough starts sinking prodigious amounts of alcohol from nearby stores. The drag queens dance, the priests mingle, the navy girls fall in the dirt and the tourists keep taking photos until things draw to a close several hours later.
Be sure to check out our photo gallery of the 2009 penis festival by clicking here:
Church ministers take note: this is religion made fun! Bring in drag queens, penis statues and crates of booze and I guarantee those dwindling attendance numbers at Sunday mass will shoot through the roof. The message might get a little muddied, but when everyone's having such a good time, who really cares?