In 48 hours: one flight from Chicago to Tokyo, one bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, nine subway rides, one bus and one frantic taxi ride after a different bus didn’t show up as scheduled. We arrived at the Moss Temple just in time for the admission slot which our hotel managed to reserve for us (after several google-translate enabled email exchanges.) Hungry—no time for lunch—with our heads swimming from the 14 hour time zone leap, we followed a monk to copy out a sutra at a low table. On completing the sutra, we wrote a wish next to the inked-in text and dropped it at the temple’s altar. Now we were set free to explore the temple grounds.
When planning our trip to Japan, I read some reviews of Moss Temple, which described it along the lines of “Experience the beauty of nature.”
Moss Temple is beautiful.
Moss temple is not nature.
The best way to think about Saihoji—which is the official name of Moss Temple—is as a work of art created from natural elements.
Supposedly there are 120 types of moss in Saihoji, which is kind of hilarious. Like isn’t Zen supposed to be all austere? But these Zen monks are practically rolling around in velvety excess.
Hilarity aside, think of it: moss as art medium. No photo can capture the lushness, depth and luminescence.
There’s the moss…and the light. These Zen monks have even art directed the perfect light. 120 types of moss, dappled with light. Light slanted sideways, so the trees throw out linear shadows. Honey colored—not brass—light. Light washed over like a watercolor, tree branches picked out here and there and highlighted ice blue.
Water is standard garden fare, of course, but our monks have that too, just like some 4 star chefs make Nouvelle cuisine versions of childhood comfort foods.
Once I stopped gaping at the moss and the light, I looked closer at the trees, which are sculptural. Notice the trunk of the tree in the foreground of this photo is delicately twisted.
Consider the tree’s roots, arranged just so.
Look across the pond, where all the trees are growing at the same angle.
No, really, what is the deal with the trees? Each tree seems to come straight out of an illustration from The Tale of Genji.
HOB and I walked through the garden once, a second time, and then a third time in reverse. Just as a monk came to tell us we had to leave because he was locking the gate, I saw this contraption tied to a tree’s branches.
As we had only just arrived in Japan the night before, I didn’t yet realize this type of tree manipulation is a common sight in Japan. The landscape artists of Saihoji are just much more discreet about the way they work, have wrestled with and transformed nature here since it began as a Zen temple in 1339.
Throughout our trip to Japan we saw trees stretched, clamped, propped, split open, wearing girdles, and stripped of leaves on the bottom so that they grew up with bouncy heads.
For a country with Shinto as the dominant, ostensibly nature-based religion, the Japanese people don’t seem to feel much of a need to keep nature natural.
I kind of agree with them.
One advantage of my terrible pre-college education was that, when I started at the University with the usual freshman survey courses, all the ideas were new to me, rather than mainly reviews of subjects studied in high school, as they were with other students. The concepts I studied would hit me fresh—every day a new “Gah! Ah! Yes!”
One such mini-brain explosion came in a Poli Sci survey. We were reading about the social contract and when I got to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and his description of life in a state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” I was filled with certainty of it.
When you enter a subway train in Japan, the people line up neatly, and enter calmly without shoving, even in rush hour. No one talks on their cell phone anywhere in public. They don’t honk their horns. They don’t even walk while eating or drinking, to avoid possibly running into someone and creating a mess. There are hardly any trash cans, but no litter. Public bathrooms are clean, parks are clean—-everything is clean, and of course safe. We saw unsecured bikes. We were not subjected to scam attempts. Japanese people are so almost comically helpful and friendly that we would often be escorted to our destination by people helping us find our way. The police appear to be around mostly to assist people, not to prevent crime.
I don’t know enough about the history of Japan to understand how it got to be this way, so orderly, so safe, so clean, but it seems like all of Japanese people have internalized the social contract. Are they suffering because of it? Nope, not so you would notice. Perhaps Japanese social forces are like the landscape artists of the Moss Temple—they applied the braces, girdles and clamps for so long and so discreetly that there’s no pain in manipulation, no longing to cut of the girdle, to go back to brutal nature.
It’s too late for me to live this way, but God, I envy them.