The monks may not be as unworldly as they seem. They’ve created a mystique around the moss garden which surrounds the Temple of Fragrance in Kyoto by making all visitors apply for a permit in writing at least a week in advance and then charging a fee (or ‘donation’ as they put it) of a whopping £25 (3,000 yen) a head. The going rate for a temple and garden in Kyoto is £4. I reckon they rake in a cool £4m a year.
But the monks temper their greed with a sense of fun for once they’ve extracted your chunk of cash they take you to a hall where they make you sit on the floor in front of a low desk together with about a hundred others, school room style. You are then treated to a 20 minute Shinto ceremony after which you’re instructed to write a prayer on a wooden tablet using a calligraphy brush and black ink. You then queue to kneel at a shrine on which you place your prayer, before you are allowed to look at the garden.
The garden is important because it’s nearly eight centuries old. It was designed by Muso Kokushi, a zen priest, as a place for meditation. The monks have done well in keeping the coach parties away because it retains its peacefulness. We were told that there are 120 types of moss in the garden, which, like the Eskimo’s 145 kinds of snow, doesn’t merit further enquiry. We were also told that the garden looks its best in June, in the rain, when the moss lies under a thick canopy of trees. Now, in December, when the trees have lost their leaves and the ground is dry, it doesn’t have that touch of magic. This may be the most expensive garden to see, but it’s definitely not the best.