Daikakuji Temple in northwest Kyoto started life in the lyrical Heian Period as Saga-in, the Detached Palace of Emperor Saga, who reigned from 809 until he abdicated and went to live there permanently in 823. Then in 876, his daughter Princess Shoshi designated Saga-in to be converted into a Buddhist temple.

Some 300 years later, during the samurai upheavals of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), retired Emperor Gouda held a cloistered government at Daikakuji. As a result, the temple became known as Saga Gosho (Saga Imperial Palace), and vestiges of its past glory are still evident in details such as the Imperial family’s kiku (chrysanthemum) crest adorning many of the buildings.

On arriving at the temple’s shikidai (main entrance), the first thing you will encounter are some tall akamatsu (Japanese red pine; Pinus densiflora) and an interesting-looking kuromatsu (black pine; P. thunbergii) that at first glance appears to be a branch of a nearby, tall kuromatsu carefully trained to hug the ground like the wings of a bird. On closer inspection, however, “it” turns out to be not one huge, low-growing tree, but dozens of dwarf specimens planted close together with the lone tall tree behind.

For visitors not proceeding directly to tour the temple buildings, Osawa-ike — whose name translates as “large swampy-ground pond” — is an extremely rewarding alternative. Part of Daikakuji, the pond was created by Emperor Saga when he dammed a small stream in order to irrigate the area’s fertile farmland. All over Japan, there are many ponds such as this, known as tama-ike (storage ponds), though Osawa-ike — with a circumference of about 1 km — is thought to be one of the country’s oldest surviving examples of a pond garden.

Hence, aside from its irrigation function, Osawa-ike was also used by guests to sail boats on at night in autumn to view the moon. Moon-watching was popular with the Heian nobility, whose trysts and picnics could also be held on two islands in the northern part of the pond — Benten-jima (Benten is an Indian goddess of the arts and learning, and one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune) and the smaller Kiku-ga-jima (Chrysanthemum Island).

In the center of Benten-jima, which is joined to the “mainland” by a narrow isthmus, there is a splendid shinboku (sacred tree). Shinboku are normally associated with Shinto, and their presence here is a reminder that until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples occupied the same complex. The shinboku on Benten-jima is a towering sudajii, or chinkapin (Castanopsis sieboldii), an evergreen member of the buna-ka (beech family; Fagaceae). Other colloquial names for sudajii are idajii and nagajii.

In Japan, there are two closely related species of this beech, and people generally lump them together as shii. However, C. sieboldii — also known as tsuburaji — has smaller leaves and cones than C. cuspidata; and as C. sieboldii age their bark develops fissures, whereas C. cuspidata’s gray bark is nearly smooth.

In both species, however, the leaves are coriaceous (leathery) and ovate-oblong to broad-lanceolate, varying from 5 to 10 cm long and from 2 to 3 cm wide. The flowers are monecious or imperfect — that is, male and female flowers are separate but on the same plant. The golden flowers are borne in May and June, and are 8 to 12 cm long, erect and catkin-like (aments). These catkins contain numerous male or staminate flowers, while the less-numerous, 6- to 10-cm-long female (pistilate) flowers are found in the upper branches. The fruit is a small acorn that takes two seasons to ripen and is edible.

In Japan, apart from in Hokkaido and colder areas of Tohoku, shii grow throughout the warm-temperate areas, where they are indicative of a climax forest and can attain more than 20 meters in height. They are often planted around shrines and temples, and are also often found in older and larger gardens.

The timber from these lovely trees is hard and is favored for house construction, although nowadays most house-building timber is imported. Chinkapin timber is also used to make furniture and for boat-building, as well as for making charcoal and pulp, while logs are used to cultivate shiitake.

Moving on a little beyond Osawa-ike brings you to a lovely bamboo grove with a pleasant meandering pathway through it. This is a well-maintained grove, where all the old, dead and fallen bamboos are removed annually. The bamboo in question is madake (giant timber bamboo; Phyllostachys bambusoides), which may or may not be native to Japan (botanists are still unsure), though it has certainly been cultivated here for thousands of years. These days, even with Japanese gardening in decline, bamboo is still in demand for making fences, with madake the most popular choice for traditional styles.

Bamboo is in the same family as rice and ine-ka (lawn grass; Gramineae), and in the case of madake, the flowering cycle is between 60 and 120 years — because these giants last flowered between 1963-73, don’t hold your breath to see them in bloom. One quick way to distinguish this bamboo from the other large bamboo (P. edulis), known as moso, is that madake has a double lip at each node or joint, whereas moso has only a single lip.

When you are strolling around this bamboo grove, be sure to take a look at what plants are growing on the “floor.” Among them you will see an interesting evergreen climber known as teikakazura (Trachelospermum asiaticum), whose mottled leaves with toothed margins form thick carpet-like ground cover that does not flower. However, when the plant climbs over rocks and up through tall trees, the foliage changes to unmottled green without any teeth and it bears fragrant tube-shaped flowers (in May and June). Since the Edo Period, teikakazura has been widely grown as ground cover and numerous cultivars have been raised.

Enjoy your visit to the Saga area of Kyoto . . . and take your time to savor this Heian Period gem.

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