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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.