The Beauty of Mosses at Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji started out as a retirement villa on the outskirts of Kyoto for a 15th century feudal lord. Originally, the main building was supposed to be covered with silver. Ginkaku-ji, in fact, means Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Civil war caused the silver idea to be indefinitely postponed, yet the name stuck.


Ginkaku-ji was the first garden we visited during our stay in Kyoto.


This is the main building, called the kannon-den. As you can see, no silver. But that was OK, because we had really come to see the garden. In fact, Ginkaku-ji turned out to be our favorite garden in Kyoto – at least among those we got to visit.


The rock garden (almost all sand, actually) was one of the first things we saw. The precise and meticulous quality here is obvious. But it is that very exactitude that strikes me as sterile. The perfectly shaped cone of sand is supposed to represent Mt. Fuji, or so I was told.


I think this area is supposed to represent the ocean. But let’s move on.


There was a pond near the pavilion. I can appreciate the use of stone in Japanese gardens much better than the sand. The rough, irregular stones covered with lichens and mosses are far more evocative.


As always, reflections of trees in water have a dreamy quality.


Even so, it was the mosses – on stone or spread out in the dappled shade – that were Ginkaku-ji’s most compelling feature.


Moss and ferns make the pond-side stones come to life.


I love this waterfall. It must have been designed with the same precision that went into the sand gardens – and yet it seems incredibly natural. It gave me a feeling of energy and luxuriance.


Past the waterfall the path takes you up a small but steep hill.


Along the way there are more opportunities to admire the mosses. They make the stony slope look like it is covered in fuzzy green pillows.


These stone steps are on the other side of the summit.


A rill provides the sound of running water.


Looking back down at the moss-covered forest floor.


Some of the old trees are supported with rope and wooden poles.


Though the grounds are carefully maintained, tree stumps are allowed to stand and decay with time.


Another rill, this one more naturalistic.


Here we are at the top of the hill, enjoying a view of the temple and a portion of Kyoto beyond.

Moss is used more extensively at Ginkaku-ji than at any other garden we’ve visited. It imparts a feeling of softness and tranquility. The moss also adds to the impression of great age, though the garden was extensively restored in 2008. Speaking for myself, if I could revisit just one garden in Kyoto, it would certainly be this one.


45 Comments on “The Beauty of Mosses at Ginkaku-ji”

  1. Beautiful! I visited this temple a few times while living in Japan – both in winter and spring, and it always looked perfect. As you say, so precisely planned and yet so natural. I would love to return one day just to see this one garden. So glad you got to see this one Jason/Judy!

  2. Love the moss-covered rocks and mossy ground cover, the stone steps, the rills – it does look tranquil. Like you, though, I don’t really get the sculpted sand. I’d be so tempted to run about in it (but of course I wouldn’t)!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing, this is gorgeous. Our yard has so much tree cover, we have moss instead of grass and I have always loved that. After my husband put in our two ponds and waterfalls, moss began to cover the rocks in beautiful patterns. You are so right about the tranquility and peace that comes with moss and dappled light.

  4. What an exquisite garden. The abundance of mosses reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things”, which I had to be pulled kicking and screaming to read after “Eat, Pray, Love”! But it was worth it.

  5. I love the softness and tranquility of the moss-covered forest floor! The photo of the “fuzzy green pillows’ is wonderful. To think that some people think moss is a weed! My neighbor had moss growing over the ground in a shady, damp area of her yard. it was beautiful. I discovered her trying to get rid of it one day. I pointed out to her that it was soft, green, low-maintenance, and shutting out weeds. She had no plans other than to get rid of it, and I pointed out that ugly weeds would soon take over. So she kept her moss. A small victory!

  6. Lovely vignette photos of the fern and moss by the pool-side rock and the delicate foliage by the thin fall of water. Do you know how they keep the moss so clear of leaf and other litter? Are the pillows of moss covering rocks or is the ground naturally shaped like that?

    I loved the stone steps with the side channel for water and the small flat-topped stones behind the large stone risers. Wonderful combination of practicality and good design.

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