Giou-ji: A gorgeous moss temple in Kyoto
Ducking our heads, we lean down to the window opening of the wooden hut at the entrance gate. There's an ancient-looking Japanese grandma seated inside, collecting the entrance fee.
We'd hesitantly ventured our best konnichiwa with a smile, and received nothing but a firmly outstretched palm in return.
Nevertheless, the modest YEN300 cost of entry is a steal, and we pay and continue on into the temple grounds.
We're at Giou-ji temple in Arashiyama, our first stop for the day, having arrived at Arashiyama tram station not long before. We'd leisurely ambled our way up the gentle hill, through quiet suburbs past local tea shops and small stores selling Japanese wares, as well as plenty of other temples, and we'd soon left the tourist hordes behind.
They were all here for the big ticket showstoppers - the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and the Iwatayama macaque Monkey Park. And of course we had every intention of hitting those later too.
But first things first…
A magical moss garden at Giou-ji temple
One of the things we had really wanted to do while travelling around Japan was to visit a moss garden. There are a great many of these dotted around the country, and the Giou-ji temple in Arashiyama is one wonderful example.
The temple building itself at Giou-ji is tiny - described on the temple's website as a 'modest thatched hut' - and to be honest there is not much of interest inside, although it adds to the charming background of the site.
Nor is the temple garden itself particularly large.
But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in loveliness. Every inch of the garden in this remarkable sanctuary seems to be blanketed in lush green carpets of moss, lovingly tended year round by the monks.
Not that any of them are around, and nor are there many other visitors - perhaps half a dozen tourists share the space with us, and it is peaceful, as well as the perfect opportunity to appreciate the garden and get some pics sans people.
Just about everything in this tranquil garden is shades of green - the lighter shades of the various species of cultivated moss which cover the ground, the bright green of the ferns and the deeper emerald of the foliage all around. Here and there are a few shrubs in springtime bloom, the flowers providing a bit of background colour.
There are plenty of rocks decorating the Giou-ji gardens - themselves overgrown with moss - and Buddhist additions like stone lanterns and carved pillars as well as a few lovely tombstones. A little plant nursery occupies one corner, and there is a stream gurgling merrily next to the temple building, a bench alongside of which is the perfect place to take a seat and take it all in.
And all overhead is the canopy of the maple trees, a forest of foliage that shades the garden, and which must be magnificent to see during the autumn season.
As we make our way along the gravel pathways and up and down the stone-lined stairs that run through the garden, we are enthralled. There is something zen-like and mesmerizing about a moss garden, not only from the peace of being in one, but also at the idea of the hours of patient and tireless toil it takes to nurture one.
And this garden is a gorgeously maintained haven, and a pleasure to wander around.
Amongst the many temples in the Kyoto's Arashiyama district, Giou-ji is one mostly overlooked by the throngs of sightseers who flock to the area. But for us this pocket-sized temple, set in its magnificently lush and serene garden, was our favourite amongst all the moss temples that we visited on our journey through Japan.
Giou-ji Temple visitors information
Hours: 09:00 - 16:30 daily
Address: 32 Sagatoriimoto Kozakacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8435