What's the 'moss' happy place among the mountains where you can just drop dead and be fine?
Kyoto's Saihoji Temple or more commonly known in Japan as 'Koke-dera' which means Moss Temple, is probably one of the most spectacular gardens we've ever visited. This lush Zen Buddhist temple is literally covered in 120 types of moss that's probably been around for over 1,000 years. The moist and damp climate of Kyoto is the perfect growing conditions for moss, not unlike NYC where instead we grow black mold and vermin(120 types as well).
The temple has been around since the 4th century when Prince Shōtoku decided to make his home here and has been the training ground for countless philosohpers and priests over the centuries practicing Zazen meditation. It's been said that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of Kokedera during his lifetime and had visited numerous times to worship Buddhism at this Zen temple. No iphone shapes in the temple but we're assuming the temple's understated beauty is what inspired Mr. Jobs minimalist aesthetic for Apple.
To start our temple visit, we were promptly seated inside the main temple on low writing desks. In front of us was the Sutra scripture(or Buddhist prayer) in kanji characters, ink and a calligraphy brush. To be honest I had no idea what we were in for but it was very refreshing to be an active participant in this ceremony considering we were tourists. Also, my rule of thumb when visiting Japan is if you have no idea what you're doing, just follow what the Japanese people are doing to save yourself the embarrassment and being viewed as a savage.
We proceeded to chant the sutras (or in my case, pretend to read kanji and mouth it silently) and then write down our name and deepest wishes for the world on a piece of wood in the main hall to be offered up to Buddha's altar. Unfortunately photos weren't allowed inside the main temple and in Japan rules are rules that need to be followed, savage!
A greater contribution of koke-dera has been their sustainable method of allowing visitors to come. Moss is extremely delicate and suffers under too much 'tourist pollution' which had started to become a huge problem. Moss is a bio-indicator of the health of the environment and responds to the changes in temperature, humidity, and air quality. In the 70s, with increase in visitor traffic, the temple started limiting the daily number of visitors to ensure both the long term health of the moss, and a happier experience for us (limited crowds means you can get even closer!).
To this day, the only way to visit the temple is by sending a snail mail postcard requesting to visit the temple three weeks in advance if you live outside Japan, or a week if you're in the country. If you're successful, you'll receive a return postcard to confirm the number of people, date, and time of entry. You can find all that information here.
Moss-perfect conditions: dappled sunlight, good air circulation, drainage, and humidity. A typhoon-swept fairytale cottage is not necessary, but wont hurt.
Moss: "Boundaries! Back off, feet!'
Whats your microclimate type? Here are several dozen distinct pioneers of every corner. It tells you if what you're doing is right. Why is the sight of moss in your garden or woods a great sign? its a reward for maintaining the right conditions for survival. if moss can survive, usually its great for a lot of other things, too.
Damage from typhoon. Theres a lot of work here to do!
It was an extremely unusual and special time to visit Kokedera since we had just gone through Japan's strongest typhoon in 25 years the day before. A usually immaculately tended garden was now slighty reclaimed by nature because of all the debris. The temple seemed mildly concerned with the extensive damage from typhoon Jebi, focusing rather on the safety of the visitors.
Bring your camera, but save time at the end to sit on a stone step to reflect. You'll be tired of all of the picture taking (i was). Toward the end of the 2 hour timed visit, there was nobody left but us to take the entire landscape in and reflect on its beauty. Overall it was an incredible experience because this moss kingdom temple is like no other and we came at a unique time, on the aftermath of a huge typhoon where it completely transformed the landscape. It was definitely well worth the trouble to gain access this magical place.