We arrived midway through the celebrations as the participants, who parade from the shrine through the streets of Kashima and back, prepared for the return trip. The day was cloudy with even a little light rain now and then, but it didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits. The brightly clothed celebrants were assembled a few blocks from the shrine and warmed up with some singing and dancing to an old fisherman's folk song, "Soranbushi".
Saito Sai dates back over 1200 years to the Nara Period (710 to 794) when soldiers called sakimori would be sent off on duty in Kyushu in southern Japan. Before leaving, they would gather at Kashima Jingu to offer prayers for victory in battle and a safe journey and people would parade through the streets to see them off.
The festival is also to offer prayers for a successful growing season for the five key grain crops of wheat, rice, beans, awa millet, and kibi millet. The participants wear five different colored tasuki (long strips of cloth which tie back the flowing sleeves of their kimono) which represent each crop. In recent years, the costumes have come to include plush toys and wild hair styles and colors.
A boy dressed in armor leads the way representing a taisotoku (governor-general).
The rest of participants are organized into groups of ten or more each, carrying long oak poles and accompanied by a drummer, around whom they dance in a circle as they sing "saito bayashi" and touch their poles together. A man wearing a helmet and carrying a chochin - paper lantern - leads them through the streets. He is followed by a person with that group's banner atop an oak pole. He stops and swings the banner in a circle first one direction and then another, which clears the area for the dancers.
The symbols on the top of the banner are made of sheet metal. Best not to get in the way when this is being swung. (We saw a man get hit in the shin with one).
The children's groups are near the front.
Each group has a color coded bandana.
The drummers lead their group along to the next spot where they'll form a circle again and dance. The drum sticks are in the shape of a phallus to represent fertility.
The festival finishes with everyone gathered in front of the Honden - main hall - of the shrine, singing Saito bayashi (festival songs).