In woodland close to Kyoto, in the eastern grounds of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist Saihō-ji Temple, is situated probably the most significant moss garden in the world. It is also known by the name Kokedera, or moss temple, and was built to replicate the Western Paradise (Pure Land) of the Amida Buddha (Amitābha in Sanskrit). Its beauty, along with its great significance to Japanese culture, led to its achieving UNESCO world cultural heritage status in 1994, as part of the Historical Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
Such places have always made a strong impression on me: large expanses of moss carpeting the ground in gentle waves, often partly shaded by scattered conifers. A strange magic emanates from these spots; they somehow always seem to have been left untouched over the ages. Mosses, which originate from the green algae of intertidal zones, were some of the first plants to begin taking over the land masses hundreds of millions of years ago. They are fine, inconspicuous little plants, spurned by most lawn lovers, or simply overlooked. However, when they appear en masse, for example up on the moors, in a tropical cloud forest, or by a waterfall, intoxicating colour effects can result, deeply moving to the keen observer.
Even as a young boy I gathered mosses in the woods, and tried to create my own moss gardens in our own garden at home. My fascination and love for these plants has remained to this day. For this reason, mosses have time and again played an important role in our garden designs in the past years. Underneath an Indian bean tree (Catalpa Bignonioides), reminiscent of a rainforest giant with its huge leaves, we laid out a larger moss garden, which, intensified by ammonites, ferns and certain tree ferns, was transformed into a primeval garden. Our intention was to create an atmosphere that transports the viewer back into the furthest reaches of time.
In the middle of the Saihō-ji Temple moss garden in Kyoto is the Golden Pond. The water takes the shape of the Chinese character meaning “heart” or “spirit” ( kokoro). In the pond are three small islands named “Asahi”, “Yūhi” and “Kiri”. Paths lead around the pond which give structure to the garden and permit the visitor only certain perspectives of it, which was surely the designer’s intention.
Mosses usually appear in shades of green. However, even the familiar peat moss (Sphagnum) presents itself, particularly in the colder months, in almost all colour variants (except blue), most commonly browns, oranges and deep reds. For many moss varieties a drought by no means spells death. Although they may seem to have withered, a spell of rain can restore them almost immediately to their former colourful glory. It was not only its natural habitats which inspired me to use mosses in my garden creations. In the Japanese garden tradition this plant has always been of greater importance than here in the West. This is partly because the average humidity is higher in Japan than over here, which encourages the plant to thrive.
Besides the aforementioned moss garden, also of significance in the Saihō-ji Temple are the Zen gardens, with their expanses of gravel and clumps of moss arranged around rocks. If one perceives the rocky crags in the seas of gravel as miniatures of the Japanese coastline with its numerous islands, the moss represents the distant forests hugging the sides of the mountains. The observation of such a miniature landscape brings about a state of sublimity, which can support a deep immersion in the meditation that follows.
Several years ago I played with a string quartet in a chamber music festival in Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia, a town barely a thousand kilometres from the Antarctic. On our sole free day we took a walk in the surrounding area. Particularly impressive were the forests of old Antarctic Beeches (Nothofagus antarctica), which, sculpture-like, brought to mind gigantic Bonsais. The walk ended up on a raised bog right by the hotel, with peat moss of almost unbroken blood red. I wandered through a completely unreal atmosphere, with an expanse of red as I had never seen before. It became clear to me in that moment, the extent to which colours can affect our mood. The very same plant, now in red instead of green, led me to feel as if I was on another planet.
The moss garden in the grounds of the Saihō-ji Temple is arguably unsurpassed in its tranquil and contemplative atmosphere. It is said that over 120 different varieties of moss grow here around the Golden Pond. According to tradition, these began to grow after the temple grounds were flooded in the Edo period (1603-1868).
The garden was intended as a paradise for the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of infinite compassion. Yet instead of the opulent profusion of blossoming plants we know as paradise from other cultures, we are touched by its atmosphere of simplicity and modesty, and this would seem to be characteristic of the very essence of Japan.
Detail from the moss garden of the Saihō-ji Temple near Kyoto.
One of our creations: a moss garden with tree ferns, and petrified wood in the
foreground. Photography: Denis Kovalenko
Cloud forest in Peru. The trees are completely covered in moss and lichen due to mist
drifting through the treetops. Photography: Andreas C. Fischer
Taken from the Walker Pass in the Sierra Nevada (USA): Five-fingered fern (Adiantum
Cloud forest on the island of La Gomera.
One of our creations: moss garden with Madagascan ammonites. Visible in the
background, the trunks of tree ferns. Photography: Denis Kovalenko
The Golden Pond of the Saihō-ji Temple near Kyoto.
The Sphagnum peat moss in a particularly intense shade of red.
One of our creations: part of a moss and fern garden with karst rocks.
The Rioan-ji Zen garden, created in the fourteenth century and reckoned to be the first
of its kind.
Raised bog by Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego). Photography: Andreas C. Fischer.
One of our creations: island with Five-fingered fern (Adiantum pedatum). Photography:
Part of the moss garden of the Saihō-ji Temple near Kyoto.