As Kaori Shibo bends her head down and peers at a log through a magnifying glass, she emits a delighted gasp. The object of her adoration? Moss.
With her face almost close enough to kiss the fallen tree, she shouts out, “Oh, this baby’s sporophyte is breaking out! I’ve never seen this before.” Shibo, 41, and around 20 other people on the same hike in a forest in northern Yatsugatake, Nagano Prefecture, are part of a growing community in Japan obsessed with plants known as bryophytes, which comprises moss, liverworts and hornworts.
“When you stare at a tiny piece of green, you find a vast world expanding from there,” explains fellow enthusiast Masami Miyazaki, 42. “It’s like a micro universe.”
The group is exploring the forest just days into Japan’s rainy season, perfect weather for an expedition to spot some of the many bryophytes and lichens that coat the forest’s trees and rocks.
According Masanobu Higuchi, Japan’s leading bryology expert and the hike’s leader, more than 500 varieties can be observed in the Yatsugatake Mountain Range alone. The area his group is trekking through, which surrounds Shirakoma Lake and spreads across the northern Yatsugatake Mountain Range, has become a popular spot for micro-plant enthusiasts.
“I am infatuated by moss not just because of their pretty shapes and colors,” Shibo says. “I am fascinated by the fact that you can find them anywhere around you but never realize how magnificent they are.”
In recent years, moss enthusiasts have increased in number in Japan, with tour hikes catering to those eager to spot different varieties, and shops selling the plants in terrariums to display in homes. The Northern Yatsugatake Moss Association began organizing its moss viewing hikes in 2011, and attracted around 40 people over that year. This year, demand outstripped the number of spots available with 140 people obtaining tickets to the association’s hikes, which are held each month from May until October.
The appreciation of moss is not new. The plants grow well in Japan’s humid climate and it has been used in traditional Japanese gardens for centuries.
Speaking at the carefully groomed Japanese garden at Kyoto’s Tofukuji Temple, Chisao Shigemori, a prominent Japanese garden designer, explains that moss is considered the best ground-covering plant for traditional settings because it helps replicate natural landscapes in miniature.
“A beautiful natural landscape that is ‘taken’ and compacted — that is the essence of Japanese gardens,” he says. “The landscape of mountains and contrasting densities of green can all be
expressed by moss.”
At the Kyoto temple, much of the garden is covered with juniper haircap, known as sugi-goke (cedar moss) in Japanese. The spiky stems resemble miniature cedar trees and the moss is popular with Japanese garden designers.
The ‘Moss King’
While moss is a purely aesthetic pleasure for some, for others it is also big business.
Nicknamed the “Moss King,” 64-year-old Oichi Kiyomura spends most of his days digging through wild bushes, across slopes and even up cliffs, looking for moss that he scoops into trays to sell to enthusiasts.
It’s a far cry from his former career of running nightclubs, but Kiyomura, who is based in the mountains of Nikko north of Tokyo, says his moss business is lucrative. He claims he makes at least ¥30 million a year, and hints that that may be a modest estimate.
Kiyomura’s moss conversion came about after a discovery while mushroom picking with a friend.
“It was something I didn’t expect, but I found a really beautiful community of moss, clustered in the shape of small dome,” he says. “It was my first encounter with moss. I thought there was no way that people would ignore something so beautiful if I started selling it.”
Kiyomura had found what is known locally as arahashiraga-goke, a type of moss popular among bonsai farmers for its silk-like fine leaves. After his discovery, he purchased vast lots of land, including some alongside a golf course that had been shuttered since Japan’s economic bubble burst. Then he started collecting the micro-plants.
Now Kiyomura sells to temples, traditional garden designers, bonsai farmers and terrarium hobbyists. He has even developed a greening system that allows moss to be grown on building roofs, a practice designed to help bring down temperatures in cities.
“I love moss, even more than women,” he jokes. “I would live with it even if no one cared about it anymore.”