Sunday 9 June 2019

Moss: The Miracle Plant Perfectly at Home in Humid Japan

Friday saw the official start of the rainy season (tsuyu =梅雨) in Tokyo which means 4 or 5 weeks of high humidity (over 90% this morning!) - and clothes that never seem to dry. As someone who cycles to work I headed to Mont Bell in Shibuya to get some decent rainwear. Whereas rain and humidity are both pretty unwelcome for cyclists like me, for one of Japan's signature plants - moss or koke (苔) - it is a boon.

The Japanese climate is particularly well-suited to moss, though it is more the humidity than the rain. Moss is apparently able to absorb water and nutrients directly from the air if humidity is 80% or more; it also releases moisture if the humidity drops too low, meaning it is both a humidifier and a de-humidifier (see here for more)! To top it all, it also purifies the air, absorbing pollutants. This may explain its growing popularity, both outside - Japanese gardens are abundant in moss and the air there does always seems fresher - and inside. Kokedama (苔玉)- a ball of soil wrapped in moss and held together with string or wire, from which an ornamental bonsai-style plant grows - can be seen all over the place these days and kokedama workshops are a real craze.
 Japan's moss obsession has been a popular topic in the media. This article links it back to a best-selling 2011 book by Hisako Fuji which triggered a wave of moss-viewing parties and tours, particularly popular amongst women. The forest at the base of Mount Kita-Yatsugatake surrounding Lake Shirakoma (白駒の池) in Nagano Prefecture is often mentioned as the perfect spot. But one does not need to go far to find beautiful moss; any local temple or shrine Japanese garden will have it. Saiho-ji (西芳寺) in Kyoto, otherwise known as Koke-dera (moss temple), is probably the most famous example. The interesting thing is that moss is prized here and left to naturally cover ancient statues rather than be removed like it might be in the West: in other words, in Japan, grass will be pulled out from moss, the very opposite of what happens in the UK! The very length of time it takes to cover stone is considered something magical - as the lyrics in the national anthem highlight; indeed, a key element of the Zen garden is the concept of wabi-sabi or "transient imperfection." The pictures above, taken in the 17,000㎡ Japanese garden behind the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, show this well.

But this post wouldn't be complete without mention of my favourite fast-food shop in Japan - Mos Burger. The "Mos" actually has nothing to do with the green stuff - it means Mountain Ocean Sun apparently - but it does proudly promote the healthy nature of its meat and veggies, with pictures of where and who grew the particular products. Most stores will also have a little noticeboard which changes daily, with friendly comments and observations from the staff giving a very warm neighbourhood feel to the stores. It's no surprise that it's the second biggest fast-food franchise in Japan - I would rate the taste better than McDonald's which is miles ahead in first place. As you can see from the menu here, there are a lot of unique Japanese style burgers on offer - including teriyaki and rice burgers - though my absolute favourite has to be Mos Chicken: amazing rain or shine!