TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese revellers carried giant phalluses through the streets of Kawasaki, Tokyo on Sunday (April 3) to worship the humble penis and fertility in one of the world's most unusual festivals.
Size matters at the Shinto Kanamara Matsuri, where groups of locals parade three heavy phalluses around the city - the biggest as tall as a full-grown man.
Giggling festival-goers, including young children and grandmothers dressed in kimonos, sucked on penis lollipops and posed with phallus-shaped sculptures as political correctness was ignored for the day.
An anatomically correct radish-carving contest drew a large crowd of sniggering onlookers, while blushing parents perched babies on a giant see-saw of frighteningly accurate likeness to pray for fertility.
Tens of thousands gather every spring for the festival, where they can buy keepsakes such as key chains, trinkets, pens, chocolates and even toy glasses with a plastic penis nose.
For the local priest of the Kanayama Shrine, however, it is no laughing matter.
"If young children are not used to seeing (male genitalia), they could get into a bit of a panic when the time comes," Mr Hiroyuki Nakamura told AFP, explaining the festival's educational role.
"People come to pray for good fortune and to ask the gods to protect them. The festival is steeped in the past but has still has a valuable part to play in modern society."
Known as the Festival of the Steel Phallus - or colloquially as the "Willy Festival" - legend has it that in the Edo Period (1603-1868) a sharp-toothed demon inhabiting a woman's vagina castrated several unfortunate young men on their wedding nights.
A local blacksmith came to the rescue by forging an iron dildo to break the demon's teeth and today a 1m black steel phallus sits in the shrine's courtyard to honour the Shinto deities of fertility, childbirth and protection from sexually transmitted infections.
Over the centuries, sex workers also made a pilgrimage to the shrine to seek its powers of protection before the festival became a tourist attraction in the 1970s.
"I think it's brilliant," said Sayuri Kubo, a 14-year-old schoolgirl proudly holding an erotic lollipop. "The mikoshi (portable shrine) parade was awesome."
Three mikoshi are lugged through the streets of Kawasaki, including a giant pink phallus called Elizabeth, donated by a local drag queen club.
There is a serious side to the frivolity, despite the bizarre sight of normally reserved Japanese housewives posing for snapshots with oversized dildos.
Proceeds from sales of the saucy memorabilia go to HIV research while the shrine itself is visited year-round by married couples hoping to start a family.
"It's about propagating the species," nursery schoolteacher Natsuki Kanayama told AFP, holding lollipops in both hands with another poking out of her cleavage. "I'm praying that I can have as many children as possible."
Not surprisingly, however, the festival drew curious stares from visiting foreigners.
"It's insane," said American tourist Jason Bradley. "I've heard about 'Cool Japan' - I guess this is what they mean."