A Mossy 1300-year-old Shrine
Heisenji Hakusan Shrine (Katsuyama City)
November 18th, 2016
by Yukiko Matsuoka

‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ is a common proverb in English. Coincidently, the Japanese have a similar idiom, ‘No moss grows on a rolling stone (転がる石に苔むさず)’. In Japanese, the meaning differs from the modern English interpretation of the proverb, suggesting that a person who does not settle in one place will not accumulate wealth, status, responsibilities or commitments: in other words, ‘Stick with it’ and ‘Patience pays off’. As these idioms show, moss represents the effects of time. Japanese culture values time, age and history. Therefore, it could be said that Japanese people are obsessed with gathering “moss.”

heisenji2Mosses are small flowerless plants that usually grow in dense green clumps. They are classified into approximately 12,000 species, more than 2,500 of which inhabit Japan due to its humidity.

heisenji4Heisenji Hakusan Shrine (平泉寺白山神社) is known as a beautifully mossy place at the foot of Hakusan (白山), one of the sacred mountains in Japan.

Mossy 1300-year-old Shrine (Heisenji Hakusan Shrine) from echiwa on Vimeo.

In Japan, people have lived with nature since ancient times. Mountains, which had given them everything essential to life, such as water, food and wood were particularly important. People were grateful to them and some even began to worship mountains as deities.

heisenji6As a base for such mountain worship, Heisenji Hakusan Shrine was established by the Buddhist priest, Taicho (泰澄), 1,300 years ago.

heisenji7From the time it was first established in 717, Heisenji Hakusan Shrine developed as a holy town, with 48 shrines, 36 temples and 6,000 monks’ residences by the middle of the the 16th century. However, it was completely burned down by war in 1574, and has since fallen into decay.

heisenji8The ghostly ruins spread over 200 hectares, and much is still unknown to us. The excavation of this area has been under way since 1989, but only 1% of it has been completed so far.

heisenji81One of the remarkable archaeological finds is the stone-paved road, which is 230 meters long, making it the largest excavated medieval stone road in Japan.

heisenji9Heisenji Hakusan Shrine is filled with perfect silence, clean air, and moss beautifully covering everything, from trees, to rocks and pebbles scattered across the grounds.

heisenji10You can see various mosses from light green to brown, luminously waving on the ground. It looks like a giant green carpet.

heisenji11Moss never grows dramatically overnight. Instead, it takes years to grow, just as trees do. The spirit of Heisenji Hakusan Shrine has been kept alive through the moss, trees and other plants that have grown here since long ago. Connecting us to a time before it was burned down in the late of 16th century.

heisenji12Even though Japan has been drastically changing, especially since the end of World War II. Almost everything comes and goes so quickly: no time is given to the accumulation of moss.

Heisenji Hakusan Shrine is there to remind us of an ancient lesson left forgotten for a long time.


英語のことわざのひとつに、“A rolling stone gathers no moss(転がる石に苔むさず)”がありますが、日本にも、同様のことわざがあり、職業や住まいを転々とする人は成功できない、言い換えれば、「あきらめるな」「苦労は報われる」を意味します。このことわざにもあるように、苔は、時間を表すもの。そして、日本の文化は、時間や年月、歴史を重んじます。それゆえ、日本人は、苔を愛でるのかもしれません。