Escape to Arashiyama, Part I: Many Faces of Buddhism, Nuances in Zen Moss Garden

While travelling in Japan, I often felt I had not done enough research to swallow the meaning of sights and details unfurling before me.   That feeling lingered when we wandered around in Arashiyama-Sagano.    Arashiyama lies on the western fringe of Kyoto — an hour train ride away. We had initially just planned to see the famed Bamboo Grove.

Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong. Forested Mount Ogura rises ahead. Cherry blossom sprays were fake, but appropriate.

Arashiyama offered far more than what we expected. We got a little lost in her offerings, but happy we chose our pastoral escape for the day from Kyoto’s many people.

Details of buildings in Hongo-ji Temple area. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Instead of following the crowd to  the Bamboo Grove after getting off the train, we turned onto a quieter, short road.  It led us by a lotus flower pond and  into a lush verdant park area with rising forested Mt. Ogura,  several temples and gardens.

Cycling in temple walled area which held unexpected surprises for us. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Entry ways along quiet temple compound road may unfold beautiful shrine views. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Rich with Zen Buddhism and Ambiance
Without planning, we sauntered into a whole area with several Buddhist temples within a 3 km. radius. –but we didn’t know it until later.  We  ended up on garden-park grounds in  by Hogon-in Temple, a 13th century child temple of Tenyru-ji Temple, one of 5 major Zen Buddhist temples in Japan –just down the road.

Lotus in pond on walk into temple compound. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong. Pink lotus flowers are for highest deity, Great Buddha. Flower symbolizes one gaining spiritual enlightment rising above murky mud of material world.
Manicured temple compound grounds by Hongo-ji Temple. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Since we didn’t recognize the temple’s significance, we didn’t go into Hogon-in.  If we had gone inside, there was a 13-faced bronze Kannon Bodhisattva.  Instead, we were distracted and delighted by carved sculptures of rakans, fully enlightened Buddhist sages scattered along the walkway and garden.  They were each unique in pose, gesture and facial expression.

Many sculptures of rakans, enlighted Buddhist sages by entry way to Hongo-ji Temple. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Unfortunately the vegetarian restaurant nearby seemed quite expensive. Nearby was a raked Zen stone garden, to mimic ocean waves. It was all peaceful and serene with occasional bird calls we didn’t recognize.

Afar to many, not evident, a raked Zen stone garden. Bamboo trees rise above garden. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Zen Buddhist raked stone garden. Waves mimic ocean waves. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Stumbling  Across Former Buddhist Nunnery–  Gio-ji Temple
Nestled next door was 10th century Gio-ji Temple, a former tiny Buddhist nunnery.  It is now branch of the large Daikakuji Temple across the river, which we didn’t have time to go.  Gio-ji sits on former site of the Oujyo-in Temple.  I had no idea about this nunnery, until I researched its fabulous moss garden for this blog post. The temple is named after Gio, a dancer who was spurned by her tempermental lover  Taira-no-Kiyomori, a leader of the powerful Hieki clan.

Hydrangeas draped over garden path in Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Early summer garden views, short path to Gion-ji Temple. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

She became a Buddhist nun along with her sister and mother. A fourth woman, also a jilted lover of Kiyomori  joined them later.  The temple is a modest, thatched roof building.

Blue hydrangea blooms. Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashisyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Behold a Tiny World in Moss Garden
The luxuriant moss garden is unlike anything you would ever see in any Asian botanical garden in North America. The whole garden’s name translates as Garden of Lion’s Roar  — refrain of Buddhism teachings.  It was designed in 16th century by monk, Sakugan Shuryo.  The garden is visual lessons  in many nuances of green richness and varieties of moss textures.  It is a place to

Moss garden undulates in sunlight and shadow –with subtleties of various mosses. Near Gion-ji Temple. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

heighten your senses for details in Nature and vagaries of changing sunlight and shadow.   An aesthetic in Zen garden design and climate, with years of vibrant moss cultivation  — tough to replicate in North America.

Tiny maple leaf in moss kingdom. Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Hall of Boundless Light on garden grounds. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Hardly anyone visited at the time which was perfect for undisturbed photo-shooting.  Late June blue hydrangea flower blooms added brilliant punch around undulating small walking paths, with low bamboo fencing here and there.

Pebbles are a metaphor for sea of human suffering. Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Cozy moss cushion planter on top mossy bed. Part of Zen garden aesthetic. Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Moss drapes onto boulder, “Lion’s Rock”, in garden. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Buddhist sage in thoughtful repose. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Delicate vine necklace even noticeable over 8 metres away. Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Gio-ji Temple at the foot of Mount Ogura and its dapple-lit moss garden, was an enchanting and serene spot to pause on hot humid summer day.

Treading in moss garden. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Moss garden in appreciation of subtleties. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Summer garden blossoms. Garden of Lion’s Roar. Arashiyama, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

More Information
Additional explanation of symbols seen in garden.
Brief translation of Gio story.

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27 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter Klopp says:

    I like the lush green colours of the zen moss garden. Great photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      It was unusual yet pretty cool to see the different mosses in that particular garden.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is stunning, Jean. I assume you just went to Japan? Is the month of June a good time to visit? Considering the beauty you depict, it looks like it. This is another country on my bucket list, which grows and grows…
    The luscious gardens are gorgeous and I imagine how peaceful they were when you visited.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      We only went in June to coincide with my partner’s birthday. I would recommend going to Japan around cherry blossom season early Mar. to April (which there would be a ton of tourists) or fall..where the same gardens are gorgeously flaming in colour. Mid-June into the summer is hot humid summers in Japan. Meaning 29-35 degrees C. They get heavy rains. You’ll notice a lot of the annual Japaneese cultural/religious festivals are not organized in June. Kyoto is highly recommended…many preserved temples, gardens, shrines because city never bombed in Americans in WWII.

      Like

  3. Mabel Kwong says:

    Looked like a such a quiet scenic walk off the beaten path. Like you said, this isn’t typical of an Asian botanical garden in Australia either. Much deeper history presented through the temples and nature. Some things you just can’t replicate elsewhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jean says:

      The garden in summer, requires appreciation of a certain aesthetic that would be quite difference than the showy autumn flashiness. Both seasons are beautiful but for different reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sue Slaght says:

    Sometimes getting off the tourist path is the very best way. It looks like you had a magnificent time exploring.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jean says:

      We did have a memorable time in Arashiyama..I haven’t quite figured how to described Part 2. Might take awhile. The temple is advertised but the garden is small and looks modest. Not everyone would clue in to the delicacy of a moss garden.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh you found a pure oasis that I missed! How lovely it all is. I would have loved to see all those rakans especially. Lovely photographs. I did get to see other wonderful things in Arashiayama – a garden of a famous poet and the bamboo grove and the monkeys so it was still a good day for me.
    Alison

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    1. Jean says:

      You would have enjoyed this area and the garden, Alison. Thankfully no rain for us!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a wonderful area. Wish we could have traveled there as well but we had so bad weather during our time in that area that we didnt do any sightseeing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      You would have enjoyed it and children might have found it interesting in a huge bldg. kind of way. But more of place for you and wife…for quietness. 🙂

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      1. We hope to return to Japan within the next five years and hopefully the weather will be on our side 🙂

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        1. Jean says:

          I truly hope this for you, CCF. Japan has much to offer..and we might be interested for another repeat for missed explorations. (He feels the pull via Europe..ie. France also.)

          Like

  7. Robyn Haynes says:

    Superb pictures. I really enjoyed your descriptions too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Hi Robyn, glad you enjoyed the Japanese garden blog post. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        I like your perspectives

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Lani says:

    I always like your photography, but it’s extra special because you’re in my part of the world. Looks like a magical day and such a great capture of the bird. Truly, I have no idea how folks get photos of birds!

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      Well, I missed another great bird shot while cycling back here at home…a red-tailed hawk that was less than 3 metres away. You may be lucky one day.
      Japan would be a contrast, Asian country-wise compared to where you are now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lani says:

        Yes, absolutely. It’s on the list!

        Ahhh, red-tailed hawks. I used to see them in the sky all the time when I lived out West. xo

        Liked by 1 person

  9. twobrownfeet says:

    We visited Arashiyama in autumn and it was quite chilly. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. 🙂

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      I’m sure it was beautiful with colour

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sartenada says:

    Wow, what photos. I loved these especially: Many sculptures of rakans. They are gorgeous.

    Thank You sharing this post. Have a good day!

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      The many statues were a surprise to us, Sartenda.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jean, you missed your calling: you should have been a travel writer. Oh, wait– you’ve become one!! And an excellent one, I must say. Your photos continue to impress and delight. Thanks for sharing your Japan adventure and your insights and commentary. And I could really identify with that one Buddha who seemed to be scratching his head!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Travel inspires me to write ..and shoot a heck of stack of photos. 🙂 You may have enjoyed some of the statue expressions.

      Liked by 1 person

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