The third and final day was one of interesting contrasts. It began with a modern twist on the traditional Japanese garden, despite being one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan (dating to 701 AD). This is the infamous Matsuno-taisha, in which it is said that worship started here after a tortoise was seen by the lord of the Hata clan in a stream at the foot of the waterfall. The self-taught Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) designed the gardens here. Shigemori became one of the most influential garden designers of his time. He named his own works ‘eternal modern’, a previously unheard of expression. His works aimed to synthesize traditional and modern concepts and design ideas in gardens, using innovative techniques to create balance. Balance has an important role in Japanese garden design, not just between old and new, but also between natural and human influence. A protean character, Shigemori was not only known for his gardens, but he also excelled (with a modern flourish) in ikebana, calligraphy and the tea ceremony.
The first garden is curiously different from those of the previous two days: it somehow felt quieter, stiller. Perhaps this was a function of being the only visitors present. Or perhaps it was because of the dominant cold, grey stone slowly warming in the early sun. Through the solemn sentinels, a concrete-bottomed river of dark water snakes. It reflects the sun in a bright dazzle, as if in imitation of the pale-paving stones surrounding it.
Behind this garden, sandstone-red tinted gravel proclaims modernity against traditional white, emphasized by clear-cut zigzag partitioning. A fence of yellow bamboo incorporating a sharp silhouette of mountains stands proudly behind. I rather liked the colours and shapes in this small segment: they juxtaposed nicely against a scatter of weatherworn, softly rounded stones.
Further past the river garden, to the edge of the complex, a rabble of monoliths huddle, slant and bend into an invisible wind, sheltered by a tall stand of evergreen trees and shorn bamboo grass. They have the appearance of sluggishly revolving within a creeping landslide of shingle: a frozen snapshot of great geological time. This conception is titled ‘Garden of Ancient Times’. It marks Shigemori’s return to his impression of the roots of Japanese gardening, and is thought to be one of his best creations. Each stone has been painstakingly chosen and positioned, and each expels a dim-glow of ao (blue) chlorite mineral.
Water makes an appearance again in Shigemori’s third garden of this shrine, this time in the form of a large pond and a fluctuating waterfall.
The playfulness of this waterfall and its protective rock, periodically sloshed with life giving liquid and coated in mosses, lichens and algae, is distinct from the pond it flows into. Guarded by a floating graveyard of tall, straight stones, it echoes stillness. Softening their edges, punctuations of low, rounded bushes hug the concrete shoreline. Flickering tails of black-and-white carp blend into dark water, emphasized sharply beneath suspended cloud-islands of bright white gravel.
Ever visible, the shifting waterfall beckons a playful mind, but the space between stones and the darkness of the pond invite deep contemplation. An echo of childhood set behind the harsh and restrictive lines of adult responsibility.
Before entering these gardens we hustled our way through a lively market place, and I was in awe of such contrast after transcending into these rocky, speechless spaces.
After traversing back through the bustle of eager shoppers, we approached Kegon-ji (also known as Suzumushi-dera). This temple is infamous for its collection of crickets, which are kept chirping all year round. Its name actually refers to these little critters: ‘suzumushi’ means ‘bell cricket’ in Japanese. The temple hosts a talk about Buddhism on Saturdays, however unfortunately it is only in Japanese! I will return when I know more of the language…
Its garden is small, sat atop a hill, which boasts a stunning view of Kyoto through the late autumn leaves. Rich red and flaming orange colours set an incredible frame for the blue blur of city and sky beyond. The small garden that it has comprises mainly of compact mosses, bushes and a scattering of small stones and lanterns. Reaching past starry shaped maple leaves, a life-giving piece of dead wood touches the heavens. It seems strong, even its decay. At the corner of the winding pathway, a trail leads off uphill deeper into bamboo and mixed woodland behind. I very much wanted to clamber on upwards!
Further south, we ventured beyond over generous entrance gates, which sit obtrusively in front of a tiny, ancient looking hut. Within this hut, a crinkled, paper-thin monk handing out entrance tickets is enshrined. A shady, gently swishing bamboo holloway leads up to Jizō-in. To the left of the temple an old tree, as gnarly and knotted as the gatekeeper, creeks in quiet existence. To the right lies a small garden, again sprawled with mossy flooring (how wonderful this humid part of Kyoto!) Completely enclosed, without the rays of the morning sun yet penetrating the miniature fern-fronds of moss, the garden has an ancient, damp and almost-forgotten feeling. I loved it soley for this.
You can read more about the history of the temple here: Jizō-in.
Midday, and our visit to the much-awaited Saihō-ji (or Koke-dera), was approaching. Moss is a wonderful thing: a protector of soil, a giver of colour, a soft cushion of bedding to lie upon… I wonder did ancient people once carpet their floors with it? ‘Koke’ is Japanese for moss, and this temple is cloaked in it. Before entering you are obliged to participate in a chant within the main hall, followed by writing a wish and your name upon a wooden placard. However, this is no chore. The subtly toned drone of the chant, reverberating from the souls of the priests, the throats of the visitors and off the wooden walls creates a cleansing, mind-expanding atmosphere.
Entering the garden in a trance, a lush moss-lovers’ paradise unfolds before you. More than 120 species awe you with their intricate diversity. Not only moss, but also lichen licking its way up every tree trunk and long sprawling roots, unaware of human pathways – all thriving around a large aquamarine pond.
Everything about this garden feels ancient, green and good. History echoes through the spore-scented air, of a time when people nurtured the environment and lived on the forest-edge. I could have stayed forever, making my home within the enfolding trunk of a weathered oak. The garden resonated a place closer to home, equally encrusted in moss, in which I have spent many a day marveling and adventuring amongst this soft species.
Plush kodama (woodland spirit)-sized moss lumps and humps crowd around the bases of trees, hugging peeling bark within a million miniature fronded arms. Perhaps this is a type of Sphagnum, known for its hummock-and-hollow patterns in peat bogs. Faery-stool tree stumps, possibly amputees of the Ōnin war, are sprinkled throughout. Multi-cultures of moss species happily weave their way between, within and through each other in friendly embrace. Fern-fringed bridges gently arc their way over the streams between verdant islands, suggesting the presence of an ancient race.
At this time of year, burnt red and fiery orange autumn leaves are also scattered around, drawing your eye to tranquil carp swirling through the still pond. Golden rays of sun emanate upon the elfin-air. Such colours create a stunning contrast to the mossy blanket. Interestingly, the garden was never meant to be this way: neglect and a perfectly humid climate led to a wealth of natural beauty and biodiversity.
You can read more about its history in our ebook here: Saihō-ji.
After pulling ourselves away from the koke-dera, we warmed up in a quaint little cafe just opposite its entrance. The owners were a kind couple who had evidently travelled, apparent from the horde of foreign memorabilia set about in glass cases, upon table tops and window sills. They also had an eclectic range of English songs playing in the background. However, through the small back door, a secret garden of antiquated Japanese charm sat inconspicuously. A sunburst of ginger leaves upon lichen-dripping branches and hefty, fern and bryophte-shrouded stones await the unassuming traveller. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area!
This was a day of such juxtaposed thoughts and feelings. It seemed to cover vast timespans of history, but also those of a single lifetime – the whole human spirit woven and tangled within nature, in just a few gardens. A deep, contemplative and inspiring end to our 2015 tour, it left us craving more.