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Our Beautiful Planet: Saiho-ji moss garden

August 17, 2017

Centuries ago nature reclaimed what was once only a Zen Buddhist temple compound and turned it into a natural wonder. Now a plush green carpet of velvety moss covers this exceptional garden in Japan.

DW eco@africa - "Saiho Ji" moss garden
Image: Imago/Leemage/M. Guillemot

It wasn't careful planning or man's hand which made Saiho-ji garden what it is today - it was neglect and nature at its most unpredictable - flooding turned this temple compound on the outskirts of Kyoto into a unique garden.

Today Saiho-ji (西芳寺) is dotted with temples and shrines. It is also filled with streams, meticulously sculpted bushes and beautiful pine and maple trees. But it is something else which at first glance could be mistaken for grass that has been attracting visitors for decades - the subtle shades of the thick green moss growing everywhere.

It is therefore no surprise that the temple complex built on the slope of a mountain is commonly known as the "moss temple" and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

DW eco@africa -
Image: Imago/Leemage/M. Guillemot

Centuries in the making

But it is not just the name that has evolved over generations. Saiho-ji itself has been constantly altered since it was created. The first temple was built in the 8th century. Over time its function changed and in 1339, Muso Soseki, a Zen Buddhist monk and one of Japan's most famous gardeners, transformed its grounds into a Zen temple compound.

Most historians think that the temple later fell into disrepair during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Any moss that had been slowly encroaching into the garden suddenly had free reign. Its spread was further helped by flooding, until it blanketed nearly every flat surface in the garden. Remarkably now 120 varieties of moss thrive in this unique place, sometimes growing on top of each other in a battle for survival.

But time does not stand still in this garden. The main hall was build in 1969 and the pagoda in 1978.  Yet other things don't change. Caretakers still use primitive tools to trim the trees and sweep the many garden paths. They also gently sweep the moss, removing leaves and debris, giving the delicate plants the ability to rejuvenate.

DW eco@africa -
Image: Imago/Leemage/M. Guillemot

Where property is at a premium

In tiny Japan space is scarce. Kyoto now has over one million inhabitants and all green spaces are welcome. This particular garden is at its most delightful in the fall when the trees change colors and during the rainy season because the extra rain makes the moss plusher.

But if you want to visit you will have to arrange it well in advance via return postcard. And don't forget this is a functioning temple. All visitors are asked to take part in an activity before entering the garden - anything from chanting and calligraphy to meditation.

Overlooking the obstacles of actually getting into the garden, it is hard to imagine another place on earth that radiates such a sense of timelessness, peace and tranquility. Surely no visitor will ever forget their day here.

Do you have a picture of a beautiful landscape or something amazing in nature that you want to share with our readers? If so, you can send it to us using the upload tool on our website, or by emailing us at ecoafrica@dw.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

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