It is said that on Shiraishi Island we don’t have much “koyo,” or autumn colors. But this is always said by people who don’t know the island very well, and who only see the pine trees and evergreens that make up 98 percent of the vegetation on the island.
But if you look deeper, you’ll find a spectacular change of colors unique to our island.
Nov. 15 of every year is an auspicious day for our island, when the landscape changes its colors in a ceremony for a Thai-style temple called Bussharito that sits in the side of the mountain. The Bussharito is said to hold some of the ashes of Buddha and is opened just once a year for people to go inside.
The ceremony starts in the morning with a rising full moon and hot “amazake” served by neighborhood “o-baa-chans.” It’s just enough to take the edge off the cool morning and put you in a mind set to see the best of the glorious autumn colors soon to come.
At first, the colors come in a procession as over half a dozen Buddhist priests robed in purple and gold, fans tucked inside their breasts, pitter-patter along in white “tabi” socks and “zori” sandals. They chant sutras, jingle their staffs and clang burnished cymbals to summon the spirits to our small spot of sacred ground in the middle of the Inland Sea. These days they could probably just call the spirits on the telephone, but I think it’s nice that they still jingle staffs in the traditional way.
There is a tinge of pink and white in our autumn as women in kimono with white obis tap bells with small wooden mallets to the chanting of the priests and as a group of women in pink play the electric koto. Our autumn colors are accompanied by a symphony of traditional sounds.
The fiery red color of turning maple leaves comes not from the trees themselves but from a blazing bonfire set by the “yamabushi” mountain ascetic priests, who blow bull horns, shoot arrows into the air and toss people’s wooden prayer tablets into the fire along with other precious religious items. The fire sends the prayers and items up to the heavens in the form of smoke while the islanders take in the warmth of the heat in a circle around the fire, everyone passing a large beaded “juzu” rope from hand to hand.
And this year, we had extra color, as there was the opening ceremony for the new Buddhist gate erected at the base of the temple path. Pyramids of red polished apples, mounds of white “mochi” rice cakes, yellow and maroon chrysanthemums, red candles and green pine branches were displayed at the gate, adding a “grand entry” to autumn.
After the ceremony was finished and we were allowed to pass through the Buddhist gate for the first time, we had truly passed from summer to autumn.