Macro photo of green moss with water droplets on its surface

What’s Behind Japan’s Moss Obsession

The growth of moss: a gradual process that can take years.
Radcliffe Dacanay CC BY 2.0

Similar to bonsai trees, moss can be grown in the home. Because moss can be found almost anywhere in Japan, from street curbs to backyards, it’s easy to scrape some off, place it in a glass and voila: a clean, simple home decoration. Like cacti (a popular houseplant in the United States), moss is easy to care for, requiring little water to survive.

Beauty in its imperfection

The Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi also plays a key role in moss’s popularity. 

Generally speaking, Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that places a premium on qualities like impermanence, humility, asymmetry and imperfection. It’s the opposite of many Western aesthetic values, which include permanence, grandeur, symmetry and perfection (think of the Lincoln Memorial or the Georgian architecture style, which originated in England).

A Japanese flower arrangement. Joe Mabel/Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

For example, many Japanese prefer simple, stone-colored tea bowls to meticulously crafted china. In some cases, the bowls will assume an imperfect shape and feature colors that might clash with Western sensibilities. 

Japanese flower arrangements also assume a different flair. Compared to standard Western flower arrangements – which can include a vast array of tightly packed varieties – the art of Japanese flower arrangements (Ikebana) veers toward minimalist elegance: only a few plants, with the stems emphasized just as much as the blooms.

Even crops can be grown in tune with the ideals of Wabi-sabi. Many rice terraces are planted alongside the ridges of a mountain; they aren’t perfectly divided or shaped, nor is the mountain blasted away to create a flat surface.

To the Japanese, there’s a natural aspect to Wabi-sabi that’s considered beautiful. And moss is perhaps Wabi-sabi‘s standard bearer: it grows seemingly at random, in asymmetrical patterns. The humblest of plants, it’s often trampled upon, overshadowed by its larger, looming neighbors. 

A closer look, however, reveals a world of intricate, vibrant fauna, a tangle of elegant and strange forms.

Like an undisturbed treasure from another era, the moss seemed to be everywhere at once. It had completely covered the trees, the boulders, and even the ground, wrapping the entire forest in its luminous green fur… This, you might say, was the beginning of my love affair with moss.

For the Japanese, it’s not a love affair that’s likely to fizzle in a few short years. Rather, like the plant itself, it’s of the enduring sort – the type that spans generations.

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Issue 9 – March 2022

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