Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri: I survived one of the world’s most dangerous festivals!

I’ve always thought parades were kind of boring. That is, until I came to Japan, and the first parade I went to involved pitched ninja, samurai and gun battles in the streets of Nagoya. So when I heard about Kishiwada Danjiri Festival, a festival thats main purpose is to pull massive shrine carts on wooden wheels through the streets and around corners as fast as humanly possible, I had to see it.

You know a festival is going to be good when your Japanese coworkers warn you in all seriousness, “don’t die.” Considering lists of the world’s most dangerous festivals like this one often feature disproportionate representation from Japan, such a warning is not necessarily misdirected, either. But not to worry, if I had died at the festival last weekend, I wouldn’t be writing this, would I?

The thing that makes Kishiwada Danjiri Festival so dangerous is the speed at which the large shrines are made to take tight corners. You don’t need a degree in physics to figure out how this can go wrong. Consider this video of a shrine cart biffing it around a corner last year. This is how people die: either falling from the shrine as it rounds a corner, or getting crushed by it as it falls on a crowd. After telling me not to die, my coworkers all gave the same advice: don’t stand on a corner!

While I didn’t witness any major crashes – which I’m personally okay with because the thought of actually witnessing someone’s death doesn’t really appeal to me – I did see and hear several ambulances throughout the course of the day. The most dangerous thing I witnessed was one guy, jumping around the top of one of the shrines, fail to land his jump on the shrine as it took a corner and fall straight down below. From my vantage point I couldn’t see what happened, but unless he was really lucky, I doubt he escaped completely unscathed from that height, unfortunately.

Somewhat haphazardly, we made our way around much of the area covered by the festival. We started at the castle to orient ourselves (and take advantage of the air conditioning), then made our way down to the crowds. Some words of advice to anyone reading this who may brave this festival in the future: give yourself LOTS of time to get anywhere you need to be, even if you only need to go a few blocks. The festival staff guarding the intersections may force you to stay in one spot for a long period of time, then suddenly herd you quickly down a street in any direction they choose to get you out of the way. In this way it took us about 1.5 hours to get from the mall to the train station, only a direct distance of several blocks, but at least we got to see lots of action along the way.

First stop: Kishiwada Castle. Pretty standard on the inside as reconstructed castles in Japan go, but the rock garden courtyard was pretty sweet.

View of the rock garden from the castle’s top floor. Each cluster of rocks symbolizes something different. Heaven and Earth, wind and clouds, birds and snakes, and some other kanji I couldn’t read. Basically, nature!

Here’s another side of the view from the castle. I don’t know why this house has such a tall chimney. Seriously, either Japanese houses don’t have chimneys at all, or they have ridiculously tall skinny ones. No wonder Santa Claus doesn’t visit many houses in Japan!

One of my favourite pictures, of a float that just passed us with the leader at the top in mid-air. These guys didn’t hold back, and I saw the top guy accidentally fly off a float (not this one) at another point in the day.

These kids were at the front of the long shrine-pulling train of people, just givin ‘er.

One of the floats up close. The guys on the front usually looked important, I’m guessing they are heads of the family or families that own that particular shrine.

Some more important-looking guys standing on the front, watching with serious faces as their supporters pull with all their might.

Inside, and on the sides of, the shrine floats are guys playing music, such as taiko drums, flutes, bells and such. More cowbell!

This float is gearing up to turn the corner. Often the people pulling the cart would come to a complete stop just before the corner, then break into a full run, pulling the cart full force around the corner.

Some turn-in-progress action.

Along the way we came across one of the shrine storage houses. These warehouses have to be pretty tall, with huge doors for the shrine floats to fit through.

Towards the end of our time, we headed back towards the station. As you can see from the very corner of this picture, the sky is still blue, but just a few moments later it started to downpour. Run!

Pretty quickly the rain came in full force, so we headed into the pedestrian arcade across from the station. We saw a couple shrines come through, and the participants looked a lot less energetic, and a lot… wetter than before.

In the arcade, the participants tied specially-fitted black covers over the shrines to protect them from the rain. Not everyone could fit in the arcade, though, so I’m not sure what the shrines that got stuck under the sudden typhoon-strength rains did.

After waiting out about 20 minutes of constant, assaulting rain, we made a break for it and rushed across the street, sans umbrellas, to the station. I was initially a little disappointed that I hadn’t planned to stay in Osaka that night with the others I was with, to watch the lantern-adorned shrines continue their journeys at a more leisurely pace, but once the rain stopped and didn’t let up I felt better about my choice to return home that night. Plus, I had to save my energy (and money) for this coming weekend, fulfilling one of my dreams at Tokyo Game Show!

 

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8 thoughts on “Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri: I survived one of the world’s most dangerous festivals!

  1. Oh I went to this, crazy fun day, unfortunately the Kobe crew also screwed around buying ‘one last beer’ towards the end of the day resulting in us being caught in that insane downpour as well, drenched and only 300m from the station!!
    We were perhaps on the train as you guys as I recall stumbling upon droves off gaijin who were apparently Mie folk on the way over from Osaka station!

    • Hey, that’s funny! Yeah you may have seen us on the way in, we started off as one big, unmanageable group at the beginning, that didn’t last in the crowds though as I’m sure you can imagine!

  2. Quite the vid of the shrine wipe out…there’s nothing like that here in North America which I am aware of…I have been to that covered mall (unless there’s more) in Osaka but not when it was quite so busy.

    • Yeah, it was pretty wild! There are lots of covered malls in Osaka, and this place is pretty far from central Osaka, so I suspect you were at a different one. There’s a more famous super long covered mall a lot closer to central Osaka, I’m guessing that’s the one you’re thinking of! 😉

  3. Saw this on TV in Canada!
    Didn’t know that YOU would actually be there!
    How great is that?
    Looking forward to your report on TOKYO GAME SHOW!
    Cheers, Cathy Mark (Mississauga, Ontario)

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