kishiwada danjiri (act I: runners and riders)


This year, for the first time in several years, I wasn’t able to attend the Kishiwada Danjiri festival, one of my very favorite Japanese festivals.  There are several festivals in the Kansai area that involve the parading of danjiri  — essentially giant, elaborately carved portable shrines on wheels — through city streets, but the Kishiwada Danjiri festival (岸和田だんじり祭) is the one that is most famous and involves the greatest amount of speed.  The festival draws somewhere around 600,000 people during the course of the weekend (this year’s festival was on the 17th and 18th of September) and is one of the Kansai area’s most popular festivals, even though it’s essentially a local event.  The Kishiwada Danjiri festival is known as one of Japan’s most dangerous festivals and is sometimes, in a rather exaggerated fashion, compared to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.

There are 34 danjiri teams that participate in the festival at Kishiwada.  Each danjiri is associated with a particular neighborhood and each team has its own uniform that displays the name of the neighborhood, and often a symbol that has become associated with that particular danjiri (a shrimp or gourd, for example).  When the danjiri are not in use they remain housed within the neighborhoods where they are based and are great sources of community pride.  The danjiri are funded by local sponsors, and through neighborhood donations.

The danjiri are carved out of solid wood and weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 to 4 tons, depending on whose account you decide to trust.  They are pulled through the streets by a pulling team, or kumi (組), made up of several hundred people pulling one of two long ropes that are attached to the front of the danjiri. Though there are many children, both boys and girls, pulling at the front of the line, the hardest pulling is generally reserved for the young men who man the area in front of the danjiri.   Riding on the front of the danjiri are neighborhood elders and prominent members of the danjiri association, while riding on the top of the danjiri is the daiku-gata (大工方), often translated as “cartwright.”   Despite their title, the daiku-gata no longer have anything to do with the carving of the danjiri; instead, they are young men chosen from the community for their surfing ability and their role is essentially to show off their moves by bounding into the air while dancing with fans in their hands as the danjiri are whipped around city corners at tremendous rates of speed.  Running the danjiri through the streets at tremendous rates of speed — with style and precision — is the raison d’être of the danjiri crews, and a swift turn accompanied by stylish footwork will elicit great cheers from the watching crowd.  On the other hand, a timid approach or botched turn will result in silent disproval, or even light jeering

and laughter.

One of the most important aspects of the Kishiwada Danjiri festival is the music involved.  Each team has their own group of musicians (青年團) who play percussive instruments (including drums and bells) as well as at least one flute.  According to my friend Ikko, who was born in Kishiwada, the music of each danjiri has its own distinct rhythm so that it’s possible to identify your favorite danjiri as they move through the city by sound alone.  In fact, somewhere in her family archive is an old LP that catalogs all of the different danjiri rhythms so that —if one were so inclined — one could potentially get to know them all.

Ikko and her family are self-described “Danjiri maniacs” and when they’re not actually watching from the streets they’re following events on the television, since the entirety of the festival is broadcast on the local station from morning until night.  Ikko and her brother both have been part of danjiri pulling teams — Ikko when she was younger, and her brother up until recently (now he’s part of the organizational crew the follows behind the danjiri, a kind of ‘retirement’).  The danjiri team that her brother is involved with is part of a different danjiri celebration that happens in October, and I was lucky enough to be able to help pull one of the danjiri at night, during the slower evening procession when the danjiri are decked out with lanterns and paraded through the city.  Pulling a danjiri is no joke.  I helped pull for about twenty minutes at a slow rate up just the slightest of inclines and afterward I was drenched in sweat and exhausted.  The pulling teams do this three times a day for three-hour stretches at top speeds under the heat of the summer sun.  Training for the event happens every day during the run-up to the festival, and one Kishiwada high-school teacher has explained to me that it’s impossible to teach the boys during this period since they’ve been up late pulling the danjiri the night before and are utterly exhausted in class (this wasn’t really a complaint about the festival, but simply a statement of fact).

Kishiwada is known, unfairly I think, as a fairly rough neighborhood and the danjiri festival has in the past been associated with drunkenness and street fights.  The festival is also known for being dangerous and people often talk about death resulting from crashes, though I don’t think there’s been a single fatality in the five years since I first attended the festival (though I have seen one member of a pulling team who had a clearly broken leg being carried to an ambulance, and the sound of the ambulance siren in the distance is not uncommon).  In the past, fierce neighborhood rivalries may have led to fisticuffs (I’ve seen a few photos of this kind of thing from the 40s and 50s), but these rivalries now seem to be taken more at the half-joking levels that you might find between local high-school football teams.  There is still a lot of final-night drinking that goes on, but it’s more boisterous than riotous and simply adds to the festival atmosphere, as far as I’m concerned.

There are several breaks during the course of the day when the teams pull their danjiri back to the home base for inspection and repair (the heavy wooden wheels often need to be replaced) and take a much-needed break themselves.  This is a good time to get a close look at the danjiri, which are elaborately carved with mythical creatures and quasi-historical scenes of heroes engaged in battle with demons.  It’s especially important to look inside the danjiri itself where many of the most elaborate scenes have been hidden away for protection against any accidental contact with buildings or utility poles that might occur during the course of the day.

According to Wikipedia, ” The festival began in 1703 when the Daimyo of Kishiwada, Okabe Nagayasu (岡部 長泰), prayed to Shinto gods for an abundant harvest at Fushimi Inari-taisha, Kyoto.”  While this may or may not be the actual origin of the festival, it’s certainly the case that there is a religious element involved and there are at least two shrines in Kishiwada that are associated with the weekend’s events, the most prominent being Kishiki-jinja (岸城神社), the shrine associated with Kishiwada’s beautiful castle, Kishiwada-jo.  At Kishiki-jinja you can get danjiri-themed goshuin stamps.

Another interesting element of the festival is the intensely ornate cornrow braids that many women get done for the weekend.  These braids are often done up in shapes that resemble the iconic signs of a particular neighborhood’s danjiri (as in the gourd-shaped hair of the girl pictured above).  Hair braiding has always been a part of Shinto ceremony in Japan, especially on the part of the miko, or “shrine maidens” (a translation that I hate) so it makes sense that it would be a part of the Kishiwada Danjiri festival.  However, the cornrow style of braiding has it’s origins in the popularity of hip-hop fashion, which first reached Kishiwada in the 1980s.  As cornrows became more and more popular, stylish young women began to substitute the cornrow style for more traditional braiding patterns, and now the cornrow style itself has become a tradition.

A good way to spend the break time when the danjiri aren’t running is to take a tour of the yatai, or street stalls, where you can find tako-senbei (fried egg on octopus crackers), cold cucumbers on a stick, grilled yakitori and maguro, takoyaki (Osaka’s local specialty), okonomiyaki, and any other kind of Japanese street food that you might imagine.  There are plenty of cheap toys and masks as well (including inflatable danjiri for the kids to drag though the streets), and the usual assortment of “catch the goldfish with the net” type of games.  My very favorite street vendor of all time is an artisan who makes handmade candy in the shape of whatever animal (or popular anime mascot) that you’d like to order.  I ordered a wild boar (since I was born in the year of the boar), Ikko picked up a rabbit, and our friend Ishibashi-san ordered a flying horse.

After the daylight portion of the event is over, there is a long pause while the danjiri crews cover the danjiri with banks of red lanterns and prepare them for an evening-long parade through the city streets.  We stayed late into the evening watching the danjiri float by like lantern-covered ships in the night and then, happy as clams with candy in hand, we went back to Kishiwada Station and boarded our respective trains home.


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