Kyoto: The Verdant Moss Garden Of Saihoji Temple; Luminous Greens, Sacred Stones


It was seven bone-chilling degrees this morning.

Swaddled in fleecy layers, with a warm pashmina covering my face, I watched the sun rise over the field while Nick wrestled a frozen stick to the icy ground.

Cold?  If that spunky spaniel could talk, he’d say, “Bring it on!”

Winter has come blasting back.  Skies are leaden, branches are bare. Even the early daffodils blooming just a few days ago have shriveled.

As my niece once said, after moving to London from Singapore, “I look out the window and everything is grey, grey, grey.

So now I find myself dreaming of other gardens, especially the verdant Japanese moss garden that drew us like bees to honey not so long ago…



One day last October  we were sitting at school desks, pens in hand, on the open porch of Saiho-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in the western hills of Kyoto. Around us were other visitors, intently bent over their own desks or hunched over low tables on the floor.

All of us were writing. That is to say, we were (laboriously) tracing the characters of the Heart Sutra, perhaps the best known text in a collection of Buddhist sutras known as “the perfection of wisdom.”

Writing the sutra was a task we were required to finish before entering Saiho-ji’s famed moss garden. It took me 20 minutes to trace just three of the 18 columns—B winged it and finished the whole thing in ten—but then our guide grudgingly decided that I’d done enough.

I felt as if I’d awakened from a bad dream.  You know, the one where you have to sit for the final exam of a course you never signed up to take?
Still, as we stepped into the garden, a line from the sutra kept running through my mind:

“….form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form…”

In fact, it was late in the day and the gardens were relatively empty, all the better to observe their form.  But it was the incredible color that first took my breath away.


Perhaps I should say colors, because we were in the midst of greens so luminous and so vivid that it was like being bathed in the reflected light of emeralds of many hues. Saiho-ji is commonly known as Koke-dera or “moss temple” because its defining characteristic—and indeed, the source of its dreamlike beauty–is the moss that sweeps over the ground.

The origins of Koke-dera can be traced back to 1339 when Muso Soseki, a legendary Zen master, poet, calligrapher and gardener was asked to resuscitate a dilapidated Buddhist temple built hundreds of years before, possibly by the revered Prince Shokotu.

As Yoko Kawaguchi observes in Japanese Zen Gardens, at that time Zen temples were the place where Chinese cultural ideas and Japanese garden concepts met and intermingled.  Soseki took the elements of classical Chinese gardens—such as the islands, rocky cliffs and misty lakes depicted in scroll paintings—and transformed them into a vision of paradise that evoked the Japanese natural landscape.  It was thought that by making the garden a place of contemplation, devotees might find their way to enlightenment.



Although we didn’t know it at the time, the large pond that lies at the center of the garden is shaped like the Chinese character for “heart” or “mind.” Named Ogon-chi—or Golden Pond—after a description of paradise in a 12th- century collection of Chinese koan—it is encircled by a meandering stone path.  By walking the path, one literally traces the character for “heart” just as we traced it on paper.



Within the pond there are three small islands linked by footbridges. They are covered with moss but, ironically, moss was not part of Muso Soseki’s original plan. In the beginning, his garden is said to have been flooded with sunlight (inimical to moss) and at least one of the islands was a dry garden carpeted with “sparkling white gravel.”

The story is that moss began to grow after the site was repeatedly flooded during the Edo and other periods, presumably creating the damp conditions that favor its propagation.  The ornamental trees which once bloomed there mostly gave way to Japanese maples, cedars and hinoki cypress which created the shade that moss loves.

Not everything is green, of course.  In mid-fall the maple leaves were just beginning to change color, creating entrancing vistas in every direction.  Around the pond, visitors were avidly pointing their cameras at the water, trying to capture flickering glimpses of the enormous koi that live there.



The path around the pond was also an excellent place to view the latest sartorial trends.



It is said that there are over 120 varieties of moss at Koke-dera, and in some places, it seems to swirl around the gnarled trunks like velvety green lava.  Many observers say that the garden is most beautiful when wet with rain, but on a warm fall day, the glow of sunlight filtered through leaves created the feeling of being in an enchanted woodland.



Sugi-goke, or haircap moss, is a star-shaped species named after sugi, Japanese cedar or cryptomeria, for the way its tiny leaves resemble the tree’s bristly needles. As it ages, the moss turns reddish brown as it has begun to do here.



The mossy carpet is broken, here and there, by ancient stones that rise out of the ground like small mountains.  Soseki is said to have created the illusion of a dry waterfall by positioning boulders so that they appear to be tumbling down a hillside.  Other rocks are so old that no one knows their origin.  Some believe that they are inhabited by kami, or spirits.

This ancient rock wears a Shinto shime-nawa, or “tasseled rope of braided rice straw” which is used to mark sacred places. According to Kawaguchi, it is believed that  “a local deity, the Matsuo Myojin,” descended here. Such elements, when used in gardens, are termed yogo-seki, or sacred stones.



Obviously a garden like Koke-dera requires an extraordinary level of maintenance.  We saw gardeners, often moving at a clip, ladders and tools in hand, as they hurried  from one chore to the next.



Autumn leaves are the great enemy of moss.  These hand tied brooms are the ideal tools for removing leaves without disturbing the delicate surface underneath.

As Kawaguchi observes, the garden is kept “meticulously free of undergrowth… The conifers have had their lower branches removed (as is the way in Japan), and the illusion of spaciousness created by the tall columns they form, and the gracious shade they cast on the moss below, helps to give the garden an aura of other worldly tranquility…This seems the perfect place to seek the enlightenment that Zen Buddhism speaks of…”



Saiho-ji, 56 Jingatani-cho, Matsua, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto-shi 615-8286.  To protect the moss, admission is limited and can be made by advance reservation only.  A guide obtained reservations for us before we left for Japan; this website offers to make written reservations for a fee.


One Response to “Kyoto: The Verdant Moss Garden Of Saihoji Temple; Luminous Greens, Sacred Stones”

  1. Nancy says:

    I despair of ever seeing green everywhere again! Your photos are a nice break from the tedium of white all around.

    Mosses are fascinating plants. The closer you look at them the more is revealed. I recently finished The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. The main character Alma is a botanist who studies mosses. The book didn’t go into her studies as much as I would have liked but it was an interesting read.

    Those handmade brooms are lovely.

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