Growing Harmony

The Tiny Big World of Moss

Words by Mariah Reodica

Deep in the lush green forests of the Oirase Gorge in Towada, Japan, young women traverse the woods, scouring the rocks and soil with a magnifying glass. They’re not there for the tall trees or the flowers–they’re there for the moss. And a stay in the local hotel’s Moss Room, Mossball ice cream, Moss cocktails, a moss observation set, and other luxuries for the bryophyte enthusiast and plantita. These women are among the Moss Girls, a modern community of Japanese fans of these humble denizens of the plant kingdom.

The Filipinos who attended The Japan Foundation, Manila’s Itoteki Life lecture-workshop titled “Growing Harmony: The Tiny Big World of Moss Gardening” on August 27 and 28, 2021, were similarly enamored by the titular plant, thanks to the lectures by Prof. Oishi Yoshitaka of Fukui Prefectural University, Honshu and Dr. Lesley Lubos of Bukidnon State University. Both professors have had extensive experience in researching and understanding moss, and were happy to share their experiences over the course of the evening.

While the Filipino word “lumot” is often associated with unkempt spaces and insignificance, a Japanese perspective points out plenty to love about moss. It’s even been part of the country’s poetry, evoking, as Yoshitaka pointed out, the long passage of time, after death, and monkhood.

Moss captivates people with its soft and calm qualities, as well as its simple appearance without flowers or embellishments. It’s a subtle expression of the Japanese value of wabi-sabi. “Wabi-sabi aesthetics is a core concept of Japanese culture,” Yoshitaka said. “It finds beauty in aging processes, simplicity, and tranquility.”

Historically, when Japanese people wanted to find tranquility, they’d head to the mountains to meditate in Zen, recounts Yoshitaka. However, once monks moved to cities and urbanized areas to establish Zen temples, moss and gardening became a way to recreate a mountain’s quiet, contemplative environment where Zen can thrive. These tranquil spaces also proved to be conducive for artisans cultivating different Japanese practices such as sadō and ikebana. Because Moss doesn’t flower and it remains consistently green, it makes for undistracting yet soothing company for those in pursuit of perfection.

A closer look at moss reveals a world in itself, with residents of all shapes and sizes: lush green carpets, sprawling draping tendrils, and sprouts emerging out of the crevasses of bricks. Other designers take things further by using moss as the hair on statues or playing with scale in small terrariums to depict mystical, fantastic dioramas. Moss offers something for the eyes, nose, skin, and even tastebuds–though the latter isn’t quite recommended. “The taste of mosses are awful,” Yoshitaka shared with a chuckle, even showing a photo of a peat moss pancake he made.

A Princess Mononoke-themed terrarium by Tamia Reodica; Kit by Terra Plantae PH

The rise in popularity of gardening within the past year and a half has seen moss make their way into Filipino homes. Since moss doesn’t need soil and survives in low-maintenance conditions, they have been a choice option in bringing a touch of mother nature even to small urban spaces in terrariums. With the rich biodiversity in our country alone, Filipinos don’t even have to travel to Japan to find moss.

“There are so many unique species of mosses in the Philippines,” shared Dr. Lubos enthusiastically, who has studied moss from the peak of Mount Apo to urbanized areas. He encouraged listeners to cultivate moss because it can promote positive energy, improve sleep, and even reduce the risk of a heart attack. It provides an excellent opportunity as well to monitor the degree of pollution in one’s area. 

The talk’s moderator Froilan Aloro, founder of website Terra Plantae PH, is another fervent advocate of the beauty of moss. He held a special video workshop in the Japan Foundation, Manila office, to demonstrate how to arrange, cultivate, and maintain one’s very own terrarium. He walked the viewers through from the selection of a terrarium jar to laying out the hardscape of rocks and driftwood, and arranging the final, delicate touches of moss and small plants. 

Even across cultural borders, the charm of moss still shines. Growing Harmony was overall an enriching weekend that kicked off The Japan Foundation, Manila’s Itoteki Life lecture-workshop series was a fitting start to a three-part series of appreciating the intention and deliberation that goes into the gestures of our everyday lives. This talk will be followed by sessions that explore the Philippines and Japan’s cultural ties via indigo dyeing and coffee culture.

The Itoteki Life lecture-workshop series is made possible thanks to the cooperation and support of JTI.

Inspired by Japanese artisans and the pursuit of quiet mastery, an Itoteki Life means being thoughtful about the everyday things and how it can collectively elevate how we live. The Japan Foundation, Manila hosts its 2021 Itoteki Life workshop-lecture from August to October exploring craftsmanship in moss gardening, indigo dyeing, and coffee. This program is supported by JTI.

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