Last weekend I took a brief trip to Osaka to watch the 13th day of the Sumo. The following day I visited Saihoji, the Moss Temple, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Of course the Sumo was good, although there’s something wrong with Hakuho at the moment that is throwing an overpoweringly negative aura over the whole thing, but the standout experience of my weekend was moss viewing at the Moss Temple.
Moss viewing is exactly what it sounds like, the act of appreciating moss in its full furry glory. In Japanese the phrase for this is koke kansatsu, strictly speaking the “appreciation of moss”, and it is a little-known companion activity to the famous viewings of cherry blossoms (in late March/early April) and Autumn leaves (in November). Moss viewing has been developing a following recently, that can be witnessed quite well on instagram with the #苔 hashtag and is described in detail at this website. One very good place to do this is the Moss Temple, Saihoji (西芳寺), a Buddhist temple near Arashiyama in Kyoto that is within walking distance of Kamikatsura station (signs clearly mark the path to the temple), and which has extensive Japanese gardens devoted to the furry green stuff.
My friend in Osaka told me about the temple so we visited together. You can’t just turn up at this temple; you have to book in advance by sending a postcard to the temple requesting a time, and waiting for them to send you back a reply postcard that tells you when you can get in. It costs 3000 yen each to enter the temple, and once you get in you don’t get to go straight to the moss garden you’ve been waiting for. Instead, you have to attend a prayer, where you sit in front of a small desk along with about 50 other people in the temple’s inner sanctum. The monks provide you with a calligraphy brush, a wooden votive stick and an ink block. They then sing the haramita heart sutra, which they sing at high speed and great intensity. You can hear a slower rendition of this sutra here, though I stress it is slower than the version I heard. You then have to write a prayer on the votive stick and take it to the altar to make your wish. Apparently during weekdays you are expected to copy out the whole sutra on a piece of paper before you leave (from the video you can see this would be a pain). Unfortunately my hand-writing is terrible and I have no experience with the brush, so my prayer was a blurred monstrosity. However, I’m sure whoever or whatever I’m offering my prayer to can read my heart, right …?
After the devotions are over you are free to wander the temple, which takes probably an hour if, like me, you stop to take a lot of pictures. The garden is a sprawling patch of moss around a couple of interconnected lakes, most of the garden roped off to protect the moss. From the edges of the path it’s easy to take a variety of close up pictures of different landscapes, and everything they say is true – the moss really is like its own tiny world, with a diverse range of landscapes and structures in the micro world of its curlicules and spores. If you get in close and zoom in it resembles forests, plains, hills, deserts – you can see all the structures of the earth recreated in miniature within its strange fractal shapes. It’s great! I went at probably the wrong season (the rainy season, in June, is apparently best), and on a bright day which is not the best day for moss-viewing, but I still saw a wide range of colours, patterns and strange wildernesses on the verge of the path.
The Saihoji temple is a great place for viewing moss. It’s only an hour from Osaka and the complex booking system means that there aren’t many people there, so you aren’t always jostling to see things as is often the case when you visit anywhere near Tokyo. The heart sutra is a really interesting experience and is sung with heartfelt power by the monks, and provides a powerful backdrop to the full enjoyment of the peace and tranquility of a mossy Japanese garden. Then, there is moss. Which is great. I strongly recommend this travel experience in Kyoto, although I think it may be impossible for people without a connection in Japan who can send the postcard. If you can arrange it though, I strongly recommend trying to get to this temple – and I recommend moss viewing anywhere, if you have a magnifying glass or a good camera, and a willingness to look really, really nerdy … Which, if you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you do!