8 Unusual Places People Visit When Hoping to Conceive

Guilhem Vellut, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Guilhem Vellut, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / Guilhem Vellut, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Today, treatments for infertility may involve hormone therapy, surgery, implants, injections, or all of the above, but in the past women just walked through giant hollow stones or left penis-shaped offerings outside caves. The eight sites below, selected from around the world, are places where people still go today in the hopes of encouraging the birds and the bees.

1. Kanayama Shrine // Japan

The Kanayama fertility shrine, about 45 minutes south of Tokyo, is best known for the Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus. The celebrations are based on an old legend in which a sharp-toothed demon hid in the vagina of a young woman and bit off her husband's penis on her wedding night. The same injury happened with a second suitor, prompting a quick-witted local blacksmith to take pity on the woman and construct an iron penis, which tricked the demon into breaking his teeth. The item is said to have been added to the Kanayama shrine, and the young woman went on to live a life of wedded bliss (presumably).

The shrine became a popular site for prostitutes praying for protection against sexually transmitted diseases (local teahouses doubled as brothels on a popular route to Tokyo), and today people visit the shrine to pray for fertility and abundance in general. The Kanamara Matsuri festival, which began in the late 1970s, features phallus-themed art and snacks, plus a parade in which three penises (one black, one pink, and one wood) are carried aloft in portable Shinto shrines. The event now raises money for HIV research. 

2. Rude Man of Cerne // England 

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This may be the most NSFW geoglyph in the world. An anatomically correct, club-wielding chalk figure carved into the hillside near a village in Dorset, the "Cerne Abbas Giant" (also known as the "Rude Man of Cerne") has become a figure of local folklore, and legend has it that women who want to get pregnant will find their wishes fulfilled after spending the night sleeping atop the figure. Curiously, figures from the UK's Office of National Statistics show that local women are significantly more fertile than average—they have twice the number of babies as Britons nationwide. In centuries past, local people erected a maypole over the giant, around which couples hoping to conceive would dance; in more recent years, the giant has been used for everything from Simpsons advertisements to Movember awareness. 

3. Miracle Chair of Naples // Italy 

It may not look like much, but an ordinary armchair inside a three-room flat in the Spanish quarter of Naples has been dubbed the "Miracle Chair" for its supposed success in helping women conceive. The chair is connected to Saint Maria Francesca of the Five Wounds of Jesus, who escaped an overbearing father and a forced marriage; for reasons that are slightly unclear, she later became a saint associated with a happy family life. Women hoping to become pregnant sit in the chair, where the saint is said to have died in 1791, and where a nun crosses them and their stomachs with a reliquary containing one of the saint's vertebrae and a lock of her hair. Many of the mothers who pay a visit to the shrine name their infants after the saint, and the walls are lined with birth announcements. 

4. Chao Mae Tuptim shrine // Thailand 

Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Established by a Thai property developer in the early 20th century to honor a Southeast Asian tree spirit, the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine has been decorated with hundreds of wooden and stone penises, creating a veritable penis forest in the parking lot of a Swissôtel. Some of the phalluses are 10 feet high, while others are much smaller; many are painted red or pink and tied with colorful fabric. Women hoping to get pregnant leave offerings—candles, incense, flowers, or more penises—at the shrine's spirit house. The origins of the Chao Mae Tuptim goddess are unclear, although her name may come from the Thai word for pomegranate (taptim), a symbol of fertility. 

5. Victor Noir // France

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In addition to having possibly the world's coolest pen name—he was born Yvan Salmon—Victor Noir died in dramatic fashion, killed in an 1870 "duel" by Pierre Bonaparte, a great-nephew of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. (Noir worked for a newspaper that supported heated criticism of then-ruling Emperor Napoleon III, Pierre's cousin, who got offended by the rhetoric. Pierre actually challenged one of Noir’s coworkers, but when Noir was delivering the terms of the duel, an altercation occurred and Noir got shot.) After his death, Noir became a martyr to Napoleon III's opponents, and tens of thousands of people reportedly attended his funeral. He was buried in Neuilly, in the Western suburbs of Paris, before being transferred to Père Lachaise in the 1890s, with a life-sized (and very flattering) bronze effigy erected atop his grave. 

At some point in the 1970s, an inspired tour guide crafted a tale saying that Parisian women hoping to become pregnant would leave flowers in Noir's hat, kiss his lips, and rub the noticeable protrusion in his trousers. Since then, a generation of tourists have followed suit—legend says that lavishing affection on the statue will bring fertility, a good sex life, or at very least, a husband. In 2004, the city erected a fence around the statue and a sign prohibited "indecent rubbing," but the structure was torn down after protests—supposedly from female Parisians, but in fact led by a French television personality. Today, the genital area and lips of the statue are a shiny bronze, while the rest of the bronze has oxidized into green. 

6. Osun Sacred Grove // Nigeria 

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For Yorubas, this densely forested grove on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo in southern Nigeria, and particularly the river that meanders through it, are the residence of the fertility goddess Osun, the Yoruba personification of the "waters of life." Yorubas believe the river's waters can cure infertility, heal the sick, and bring riches. The 400-year-old grove (covered in ritual paths leading to 40 shrines and decorated with 20th century sculpture) is also the site of a major annual Yoruba festival, starring a young virgin who casts melon seeds and meat from a freshly slaughtered goat into the river. The festival celebrates the goddess Osun, and is said to renew the contract between humanity and the divine.

7. Mên-an-Tol // England 

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These standing stones in Cornwall, which may date to the Bronze Age, look like they spell out "101." They've given rise to a variety of legends: changeling babies passed through the "O" will revert to human form, children with rickets will be cured, and a woman who passes through the stone seven times on a full moon will become pregnant. The monument (its name means “stone with a hole” in Cornish) has become particularly popular amid theories that the stones were once connected to a larger circle, but the popularity has taken a toll—in 1999, arsonists doused the stones in napalm and set them alight

8. Phra Nang Beach Cave // Thailand 

Lubo Jurik, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Phra Nang Beach boasts white sand lapped by aqua waters and flanked by two massive limestone cliffs, but tourists who wander to the cave at one end of the beach are in for a surprise—hundreds of carved wooden and metal penises. Legend has it that in the third century B.C., a boat shipwrecked nearby and an Indian princess drowned; her spirit is said to have taken residence in the cave, and will grant favors to those who leave her offerings. Over the centuries, the cave has become associated with fertility, and while fisherman leave incense and flowers to ensure a safe journey and a good catch, others are hoping for a little bit more. The penises, however, are not just a symbol of sex—they’re known as lingams, and are widely seen as a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.