Japanese gardens are amazing, lovely places. There are certain features that are traditionally present like stones and rocks, water, plants and trees, gravel and sand. Put together under the gardener's expert mastery, these elements become ponds, mountains, hills, forests... entire landscapes.
A Japanese garden is a microcosm of nature.
A Japanese garden is a microcosm of nature.
After our morning in Kozan-ji in the Takao mountain area, we drove to the foothills of Arashiyama where we had a 1:00 p.m. appointment at Saiho-ji Temple. This is the road leading to the entrance.
A very clean and clear creek runs alongside it, serving as a natural moat that separates the temple from the road.
The entrance to Saiho-ji is marked by this sign. It is the only one of the 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto that requires prior reservations.
Since visitors are limited to 100 a day, it is best to reserve a few weeks in advance and to state alternate dates just in case the temple is full on your desired date.
I had asked Chieko san to secure the reservations for us more than a month prior to our trip.
But because it is late December and close to the New Year, there are less than 100 guests on the day we visit although I imagine that reservations would be harder to come by during peak seasons such as spring or autumn.
This is the main hall or the Hondo. Before touring the gardens, everyone is asked to take part in
the kito or sutra chanting led by the temple's priests. Again, this is different from other UNESCO World Heritage sites where the practice is not de rigueur for visitors.
Putting on slippers and leaving our shoes outside, we entered and took our places on the floor.
I find it very difficult to sit lotus style and had to shift my weight several times during the fifteen minute sutra chanting, silently willing my bones not to creak.
Thank goodness we were not asked to do shakyo or sutra copying as that would have meant a longer time sitting on the floor. But we were all given small wooden plaques to write prayer requests on.
These wooden plaques would be burned later on during the goma or fire ritual. Our collective prayers and petitions would float up in smoke to heaven.
After the kito is performed, we return our slippers, retrieve our shoes and head out for the garden. See how neat the Japanese are. Everyone has lined up the slippers in an orderly way in front of the hall, ready for tomorrow's guests.
Saiho-ji's main draw is its fabulous moss garden, perhaps the most famous moss garden in Japan.
It is also popularly called Koke-dera, which literally means "moss temple". But even before I
have set foot in the moss garden, this beautifully landscaped area in front of the main hall holds
February or late winter is when plum trees blossom in Kyoto. This one fine specimen seemed to be sprouting buds in late December. Standing alone amidst evergreen perennials, it must be a show stopper when the flowers are in full bloom.
Moss covered earth lines the entry to the moss garden, which lies just beyond the hedges.
Saiho-ji was established in the 700s and later restored by the famous Zen monk and noted garden designer, Muso Soseki in the 1300s. While he was responsible for other temple gardens like the one in Tenryu-ji (another UNESCO World Heritage site), it is Koke-dera that is acknowledged as his masterpiece.
The garden is beautifully laid out over several hectares, most of it around a still pond.
Moss grows everywhere -- between the stones on the path, on the ground, between the trees and
on the trees.
I can understand why the temple allows only one hundred visitors a day and why
they charge such a high entrance fee. (3,000 yen compared to 500 yen other temples normally charge).
Hundreds of visitors mindlessly tramping about (and yes, taking selfies) would definitely cause damage to the garden.
Soseki san has masterfully fused all elements -- creating an ever changing vista.
I may be restricted to walking along on just the narrow pathway, but I can fully appreciate the expansiveness of his design.
A small tea house with a simple wooden balcony is strategically placed by the centre of the garden. Built in the 1500s I can imagine the temple's esteemed guests sitting here, sipping their tea and quietly enjoying their privileged view of Soseki san's moss garden.
And if you happened to be sitting on the tea house, this would be your view. Today everything is monochromatic, in various shades of green but during fall, the maple and other deciduous trees
would be in their full red, yellow and orange regalia.
A small island in the middle of the pond can be reached by a wood and stone bridge almost completely overrun by moss. An island is an integral part of most Japanese ponds and are used to add meaning and symbolism to the garden.
The moss garden has so many facets. Small things are hidden from view which when revealed
added another meaning or layer to what I felt the garden was trying to say to me.
As I walked around, I remembered another favourite Zen garden, the kare-sansui or dry garden
of Ryoanji. I realised that both are ideal places for contemplation. The main difference is, in
Ryoan-ji, you sit in one spot and meditate while in Saiho-ji, you can meander, walk and stroll in solitary reflection.
While Saiho-ji is most renowned for its moss, Soseki san had planned a traditional garden using
the main elements of water, stones, rocks and plants. Through the centuries, because of the wet
and humid weather, over one hundred varieties of moss slowly flourished and grew all over the garden. In my mind, Soseki-san may have designed Koke-dera's garden but Mother Nature,
ichiban Gardener, made it what it is today.
Even Soseki-san's carefully chosen rocks and stones are covered with different kinds of moss. Chieko san mentioned that some gardeners have actually proposed removing the moss from
Koke-dera so that the true art and beauty of Soseki-san's garden could be exposed.
They believe that the garden would be even more magnificent if they could see Soseki san's
original concept and design. However, Chieko san did say she believed nothing would come out
of that proposal.
I would definitely not support that idea. I love how the moss creeps along, creating different textures and shapes on the ground. Little globes of green velvet are strewn about and while you may think that moss grows anywhere and everywhere, they are quite hard to cultivate and "tame".
A small wooden gate marks the end of the moss garden. Pass through this and your sins will be forgiven.
Stone and wood steps lead the visitor to the upper garden of Saiho-ji.
More moss covers the ground between ancient trees, their trunks coloured green by moss.
The upper garden is a dry garden or kare-sansui where large rocks have been purposefully placed
so as to evoke certain scenes.
This part of Saiho-ji has a different ambience. Rocks and stones are placed on varying levels and
seem to go all the way up to the woods until I cannot determine where the forest begins or where
the garden ends. I could sit amidst these rocks for hours.
I wish I had that kind of time to spend in Saiho-ji. We arrived just before 1 p.m. and before I knew it, it was 4 p.m. and the last few guests are being politely ushered out through the gates.
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Saiho-ji or Koke-dera is unique and remarkable.
I am thankful for this rare opportunity to visit the temple and experience its calm and tranquil heart.
My time spent here was truly another gift of grace from Buddha.
NB Thank you to my husband Jay and son Gani for photos 2 and 3.
To secure reservations for Saiho-ji, please note the instructions stated on photo 2.