For 364 days of the year, Misaki is a sleepy suburb of the industrial city of Kawasaki, 45 minutes south of Tokyo by train. But then, on the first Sunday in April, the local shrine is the center of one of the oddest - but most wildly popular - festivals in all of Japan.
Wakamiya Hachimangu is one of the few remaining fertility shrines in Japan, with the god that is worshipped here taking the form of a large iron penis.
In other towns, portable shrines known as " omikoshi" are carried shoulder high through the streets as a summer rite, colorful decorations swinging in time with the marchers. In Misaki, the object of worship takes the form of a penis - named " Kanamara-sama," which translates roughly as "Big Iron Penis Lord" - that is ceremonially paraded around the neighbourhood.
The gentlemen of The Elizabeth Club - an organization of transvestites named in honor of Elizabeth Taylor - also parade a large, pink papier-mache omikoshi.
Hundreds of people flock to the grounds of the shrine, where stalls sell lollipops in the form of the male sexual organ and milky sake is poured from flasks of a similar shape. Balloons are predictably in the form of a penis while traders do a roaring trade in penis-shaped charms and decorations to attach to mobile phones.
The legend behind the shrine's resident deity is also re-enacted each year. According to lore, a demon with sharp teeth had taken a liking to a local woman and, jealous at her impending marriage, decided to inhabit her body. After the wedding, when the newlyweds were consummating their union, the demon used his fangs to emasculate the groom.
A second suitor reportedly met the same fate before the local blacksmith came up with the ingenious idea of forging a metal penis with which to fool the demon. The legend does not record the poor maiden's thoughts on this remedy. In any case, the demon fell for the ruse, lost all its teeth and had little choice but to vacate the victim.
Quite when the events that serve as the basis of the legend that is behind the festivities took place has been lost in the mists of time, but the matsuri was recorded in the early Edo Era of the 1600s and has been going strong ever since. In those days, the only celebrants would have been local people from the neighbourhood of the shrine, but today its fame has spread far and wide and several thousand will turn out this Sunday for a chance to stroke the star of the show.
A slightly more likely reason for the shrine's unusual object of worship is the local sex industry in years gone by, with prostitutes paying their respects to keep disease at bay.
Despite all the inevitable sniggering, the high priest of the temple insists that the event has a serious meaning, encouraging people to be more responsible in this era of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
Misaki penis festival
Address: Wakamiya Hachimagu shrine, 2-3-16 Daishi Eki-mae, Misaki-ku, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Access: Nearest station is Keikyu-Daishi, on the Keikyu Line.
Time: All day, Sunday, April 4, from 10 AM., with the procession through the neighborhood at 1 PM.
Further information: http://tomuraya.co.jp/wakamiya.htm (Japanese only) Tel. +81 44 222 3206.