Saihoji / Kokedera: Moss Temple 西芳寺 / 苔寺
A moss forest
Plants mark the passing of seasons. Here, nearly one hundred and twenty varieties of moss have created a color palette of infinite varieties of yellow and green. Welcome to the Temple of Moss.
The murmur of the wind dissipates the morning mist. Here on the southern foothills of Mount Arashiyama lies Saihoji Temple, the garden of the "Perfumes of the West," commonly called Kokedera, literally "Moss Temple". Before walking the paths, visitors are introduced to the sutras (texts attributed to Buddha or his immediate disciples).
Thick and soft moss stretches across the feet of maple trees, between the roots of old trees, extending to the bamboo groves. Gardeners treat them with special attention. In this quiet garden, monastic asceticism is a virtue.
Originally a Zen garden
Although primarily plants, Saihoji is considered the first Zen meditation garden. In its upper part, is a cascade of rocks, purposefully composed. These few stones will revolutionize the aesthetic of landscape traditions. For them, they evoke nature: a volcano, a rocky cliff, an island. This first "dry landscape" (kare-sansui), better known as a Zen Garden, wass a milestone in the evolution of gardens. Saihoji has had a profound influence on many areas created afterwards, such the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji, and the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji.
The impermanence of forms
During the Nara era (710-794), the Buddhist religious figure Gyoki (668-749) erected here a temple dedicated to the worship of Amida Buddha, known in Japanese as Amitabha, or "Infinite Light," which personifies the energy of the lotus. The ruins of this area was converted into a Zen monastery by the monk Muso Soseki (1275-1351) of the Rinzai Zen school, redesigned in 1339.The creation of seven other gardens including the famous Tenryuji are also attributed to him.
In the nineteenth century, the wilderness has taken the field with the growth of moss. Instead of destroying them, the monks tend to them. This "moss garden" is therefore not the work of Muso, but of a nature which has taken back the possession of the wetland.
Heart of the Unesco
The lower section of the garden features a walk around a pond. Its allusive form is the Japanese character 心 kokoro, meaning heart. Dotted with oases of calm, it symbolizes the inner nature of man.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, rated a "landscape of special beauty" with its 16th century tea house (the Sonantei), Saihoji is a jewel in the country's national treasures. Since 1977, the temple no longer allows free access to the public, in order to protect its extraordinary garden covered with one hundred and twenty varieties of moss. The number of visitors is limited to one hundred people per day.