Danjiri Matsuri are essentially cart pulling festivals held throughout Japan. The danjiri is a large cart in the shape of a shrine or temple. Weighing anywhere from one ton to four tons, it is often crafted out of wood with very ornate and elaborate carvings on it. Different neighborhoods, each with their own guild responsible for maintaining their own cart, participate in the Danjiri Matsuri. The danjiri is kept in storage for most of the year until the festival approaches. It is at this point that the cart is prepared with elaborate flower arrangements, prayer cards, ornaments and religious consecrations to be paraded up and down the streets. It is believed that spirits or gods reside in the danjiri much like in the mikoshi (portable shrines).
The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is probably the most famous of all. Held annually during the month of September for over three hundred years, nothing gets the citizens of Kishiwada more riled up than the Danjiri Matsuri! The festival was established by the lord of Kishiwada Castle to pray for an abundant harvest. With thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators, it is easily one of the Osaka area’s rowdiest festivals.
The danjiri are pulled by two thick white ropes through the streets of Kishiwada by local residents with the town elders and musicians riding on the cart. People pull from the front and use the back ropes to turn the danjiri. The privilege to stand on top of the danjiri goes to the person in charge of controlling its direction. This person is called the daikugata. Directing the danjiri with paper fans is an art form and a sight not to be missed. The musicians stand under the daikugata playing various instruments including taiko drums, flutes and gongs called narimono. Their job is to energize the team pulling the cart by playing fast rhythms in places where the team runs fast and by beating taiko drums repeatedly when turning and skidding at an intersection. The locals call these movements yarimawashi.
As the danjiri race by, you realize that this is not just a parade but an actual competition, where each neighborhood competes to demonstrate how fast and skillful they are in maneuvering their cart. Each of the teams wear headbands and colorful matching happi coats with their local symbol emblazoned in the back. Most of the excitement and danger comes when the danjiri prepare to turn a sharp corner. The music plays louder and the yelling increases. Kishiwada police shutdown several major roads, creating a maze of at least ten city blocks for the danjiri to parade around. Along with the sound of the drums, gongs and yells you can hear sirens, as ambulances rush to help bystanders or danjiri riders who may have fallen.
As the sun goes down, the danjiri are covered in glowing lanterns and roll along at a much slower pace this time. The festival ends as the danjiri gather at an appointed place and a religious ceremony is held.
It is said that the people in Kishiwada live for the festival. The festival attracts more than 500,000 tourists to Kishiwada City, which has a population of only 200,000. During the Danjiri Matsuri, locals and tourists come together to create an overwhelming air of excitement that cannot be experienced elsewhere in the world.