HUNDREDS of children walk one after the other around a corner, all dressed uniformly in happis (Japanese summer festival clothing). Their size and age steadily increase from children to teenagers. They hold a giant rope, pulling something around the corner that we couldn’t yet see. The sounds of drumming, cheering, cymbals and festival flutes got louder and faster and the hidden object, a giant wooden danjiri (a portable shrine on wheels), came into view.
After several minutes under the relentless baking summer sun in Osaka, the cavalcade stopped pulling the danjiri as it approached the corner. The music quietened and the rope slackened. One last quick breath was taken before charging at full pace, pulling the rope with as much zest and zeal as their fatigued bodies could handle, jerking the cart violently around the corner with the use of wooden levers underneath the cart. The men pulling the danjiri don’t slow down and keep running and pulling the wooden chariot off into the distance, with as much vigour as they can muster. Their stamina and flamboyant performance is as much of a representation of their community as is the craftsmanship of their danjiri.
The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is steeped in history, dating back to early 18th century when the ruling lords would allow peasants a single day to enter the castle. Carpenters, musicians and fisherman from each community would race to be the first to show off their wares, and to bask in the attention and admiration of their lord. This tradition has continued, though it has adapted to match a modern Japan. There are 32 communities, each with their own danjiri that they race around the streets between Kishiwada station and Kishiwada Castle. Children are introduced to the festival in simple and safe roles, and as they age they are given more significant roles in the festival.
There are many danjiri festivals in Japan, but Kishiwada City’s is considered to be the most famous and also the most dangerous with deaths, severe injury and property damage not uncommon. The festival involves hundreds of people pulling a 4,000kg ornately carved wooden cart at high speed through narrow alleys and around tight corners. These exquisitely carved carts are quite top heavy, and because of the rapid changes in direction that are required, they are prone to topple over, causing damage not only to the cart, but also to the people riding it and any spectators and property in the way. Buildings in the area actually have special danjiri insurance policies in case of such an accident occurring.
It may sound sadistic, but there is something strangely fascinating about watching a festival that is frequently touted as being Japan’s ‘most dangerous festival’ and waiting for the carnage to unfold in front of your vulturous eyes. It’s not that I would wish that any of the people would be hurt; but anticipation and uncertainty is certainly cause for excitement.To the people of Kishiwada, this festival is the most important day of the year. In fact, their calendars start and finish in September to coincide with the festival.
As the sun goes down you can feel the festival dropping a few gears. The once frenetic danjiri are now decorated in dozens of illuminated lanterns and the exhausted men can relax and perform a slow victory lap
to the crowd.
Where: Kishiwada City, Osaka Pref.
Getting there: Frequent trains from Osaka City
When: Mid September
Words and Photography by Ross Cole-Hunter