Kishiwada Danjiri Festival 0

On first glance, one may not expect much from the small city of Kishiwada. But with its rich castle town history and famously lively Danjiri Festival, the coastal town in southern Osaka Prefecture is ready to subvert your expectations. Easily accessed from the Namba hub via the Nankai Southern Super Express, Kishiwada is a convenient day trip for those traveling in the Kansai region.

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Within minutes of walking out of Kishiwada Station I came across a local shrine in the midst of festival preparations. Spilling out into the street, neighbors young and old were gathered to support their district’s representatives in the rigorous float races later that day. A 300-year-old tradition, Danjiri Matsuri (wooden float festival) brings a team from each of Kishiwada’s thirty-four neighborhoods together to compete by manually pulling their four-ton danjiri through the city’s streets. It also showcases the work of each district’s best carpenters, as elaborate detailing covers the wooden structure.

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The most exciting, and at times notorious, part of the event is the many yarimawashi or corner turns that line the route. A mix of acceleration and technical control is required to coerce the enormous wooden floats into changing direction at these narrow intersections. Dozens of locals are recruited to pull the heavy ropes that stretch out in front of the floats as well as operate the levers from behind which break and skid the danjiri.

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To make the moment even more thrilling, carpenters and others from the neighborhood are riding the float at these turns. One representative is even selected to stand on the roof of the danjiri, an honorary position which entails traditional fan dancing and jumping from one of side of the roof to the other to shift weight when their float rounds the bend.

Held twice a year—first in late September and again in mid-October—the festival now brings crowds from across Japan and abroad to witness the physical feats, harrowing turns and gorgeous wooden constructions that make Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri so unique within Japanese festival culture. 

For the best Danjiri Matsuri experience, arrive at Kishiwada a couple hours before the opening of the day’s events. Food stalls line the sides of the route for a quick lunch, including Kansai specialties like takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake) as well as more general festival classics like grilled squid. With the extra time you can also scout out a location for prime yarimawashi viewing.

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Kishiwada Danjiri Kaikan 

For those who aren’t able to make it to the Kansai region during the fall festivities, there is a museum in Kishiwada dedicated solely to the festival's history. Danjiri Kaikan, or exhibition hall, houses the oldest known float from the city, extensive exhibitions on the festival’s wood carvings, clothing and music, as well as a 3-D immersive video that puts you on top of one of the danjiri as it makes a turn. A deep dive into Danjiri Matsuri’s history and traditions, Danjiri Kaikan is as close as you can get to the full festival experience.

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Kishiwada Castle 

The museum also highlights the festival’s deep ties to Kishiwada’s castle town roots. Danjiri Matsuri originated 300 years ago when the townspeople celebrated the completion of Kishiwada Castle after years of construction and hard labor. While that structure is no longer in existence—it was struck down by lighting in 1827—a rebuilt castle stands near the city center and is open to visitors. While the archives and artifacts on display inside the castle are mostly presented in Japanese, the castle itself is stunning and the top floor boasts an impressive 360 degree view of Kishiwada City and Osaka Bay.

Additionally, the castle grounds are home to an elaborate stone garden completed in 1953 by Japanese garden modernist, Mirei Shigemori. Entitled "Garden of Eight Battle Formations," the stones are laid out to replicate the strategic positions of a famous Chinese mythical battle. Unlike most stone gardens, it was made to be viewed from above and the third story of the castle offers a view of the garden below.

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The Kishiwada Castle grounds are only a block away from Danjiri Kaikan and there is a reduced-price joint entrance fee for 700 yen. A trip to both museums will allow you to experience Kishiwada's rich history as a castle town and the world famous festival that this history spawned. 

Access 

If heading to Kishiwada from downtown Osaka, consider making use of the Nankai Railway. It connects urban Osaka with its southern prefectural travel hubs, including Kansai International Airport, Wakayama, Mount Koya and Kishiwada. From Shin-Osaka Station, a short subway ride on the Midosuji Line will get you to Namba Station.

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From there, board either the Nanai Limited Express “Southern” train, or the Limited Express Rapi:t (Note that some of Rapi:t doesn't stop at Kishiwada Station.) It will bring you straight to Kishiwada Station, which is within walking distance from Kishiwada Castle and Danjiri Kaikan. For Danjiri Matsuri viewing, make sure to research times and locations beforehand, since the route changes each day of the festival. 

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ANDREW DECK

I’m an American journalist and editor based in Tokyo. After nearly 20 years living in Japan, I’m still discovering new and exciting places in Japan outside of Tokyo and off the beaten path, such as the ancient “Kumano Kodo" pilgrimage trails and the charming seaside fishing village, Kada.