Friday, September 14, 2018

DANJIRI MATSURI: Japanese Cart-Pulling Festivals

If you're looking for local festivals, Japan is the place to be. You'll find that at any given moment, there's a festival of some sort going on. One shouldn't be surprised to be sitting at a bar at night, and then be startled by the approaching sound of drums, whistles, bells and people cheering just outside. It happened to me just the other day.

After a hard week at work, some work colleagues and I decided to go to a local bar and have a few drinks to relax and shoot the shit just before heading home. We were sitting in our stools talking about life, the universe and everything, when all of a sudden we started seeing people dressed in happi coats walking down the middle of the road, clearing it of cars. In the distance, one could hear the beating of drums and bells and people cheering. "What's going on?" We thought. We went outside, and sure enough, there was a danjiri procession coming our way. I recognized what it was as soon as I saw it; I used to live in Daito City where they have similar processions. This prompted my post for this month.

What are "Danjiri" Festivals?
Danjiri festivals are cart-pulling festivals are cart-pulling festivals that happen during the fall (秋祭り: aki matsuri, Autumn Festivals). They can be found all over the Kansai area, particularly around Osaka and Hyogo prefectures. In most Shinto festivals, celebrants hoist portable shrines called "mikoshi" (神輿) on their shoulders. Mikoshi are said to house spirits or gods, and they are taken throughout a town or city for good luck. But in Danjiri festivals, large wooden carts in the shape of shrines called "danjiri" are hauled through the town instead.

Mikoshi: Portable Shinto Shrine

Danjiri are large wooden carts in the shape of shrines; in effect, this is just what they are. Often being crafted out of wood, the carts are very ornate, with elaborate carvings. In towns that have danjiri festivals, guilds from different neighborhoods maintain a danjiri cart that is kept in storage until the days of the festival. As the festival approaches, the danjiri carts are prepared with elaborate flower arrangements, prayer cards, ornaments, and religious consecrations. It is believed that spirits or gods reside in the danjiri.

 Danjiri: Shinto Shrine on Wheels

Danjiri guild members spend a considerable amount of time preparing for the festival. Meetings and consecrations are held at local shrines days before the festival, and the carts themselves must be readied for pulling, as they lay in storage warehouses partially disassembled. Special music called "hayashi" (囃し) with taiko drums and kane bells accompany the event; these are loaded onto the cart. The musicians themselves have been especially chosen and they will have been practicing the rhythms all year. Guild members hold vigils throughout danjiri season, where the cart is on display, musicians play, and people of the neighborhood come and pray.

The days of the festival vary from year to year and from town to town, although it is usually held in Autumn, in late September or early October. On the days of the festival, members of the town guilds pull their danjiri through the streets of the town, wearing their guild’s happi coat and head-band. The event is accompanied with the commotion of the participants pulling the cart, as they yell their kakegoe (掛け声), or signature shout, equivalent to the English "heave-ho!" Adding to the atmosphere is the danjiri rhythm played on drums and bells throughout the cart pulling, which can be heard from street blocks away.

 Special bell called "kane" (鉦)
When the danjiri are made to dash, you can hear musicians
add to the atmosphere with bells and drums in a distinct
"ding ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling" rhythm.

In older times, these festivals were known to be rowdy events, where guilds would compete against each other, for which they were also known as “Quarreling Festivals” (喧嘩祭り: kenka matsuri). They would race each other, ram into each other’s carts, try to knock the carts of opposing guilds over, and even attempt to knock them off of bridges, often resulting in people getting hurt or even killed. Such intentional competition has greatly decreased, but some festivals hearken to such a time, where guilds still race their carts down the street, mostly for display. The festival usually ends in the danjiri gathering at an appointed place and having a religious ceremony.

The way in which the festivals are celebrated vary from town to town. The danjiri carts can vary in size and decorative style. Some are large and tall, others are relatively small. In some towns, the danjiri are pulled slowly through the town until they get to their destination. In others, they are pulled as fast as the people can pull it. This results in a difficulty turning the cart at corners, sometimes resulting in the cart falling over and killing someone. In some towns it is common for danjiri to hit and damage buildings as they careen around a corner, and for this reason shop owners may have to buy Danjiri Insurance.

Quite possibly the most famous of all Danjiri festivals is the Kishiwada Danjiri festival, known for its cart guilds that race their danjiri through the streets. Danjiri guilds show off by performing different feats, including pulling the cart as fast as they can, and making sharp turns at these same speeds. There are, however, other Danjiri festivals in other towns in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

External Link:
Official Website for the Kishiwada Danjiri Festival