Milan, 30 October 2019

After I had finished giving my course on sustainable industrial development at Kyoto University, my wife and I took a week off to walk the woods of Japan. Last year, we walked the Nakasendo Way. This year, we hiked along the old Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail. Just as had been the case when we walked the Nakasendo Way, we were struck by just how much water Japan has. In all its forms – rills, brooks, streams, rivers, waterfalls – the water welled out of the mountains we traversed and trickled, ran, poured off their flanks. The noise of water running across rock and stone was our constant companion.

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No wonder water is such an integral part of Japanese gardens, from falls


to streams and ponds

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to small water elements.

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All this water, and the rain which is the source of it, means that there are high levels of humidity in Japan, excellent conditions for the growing of moss. I have read that of the roughly 12,000 species of moss known worldwide, some 2,500 varieties are found in Japan alone: one-fifth! That’s pretty good going. And they certainly beautify Japan. Moss casts a lovely green sheen on everything it touches. This is true everywhere but it is particularly true in Japan. On our walks there, we’ve seen it growing luxuriantly on felled trees and tree stumps.

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We’ve seen it clustering thickly around the base of standing trees.

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and throwing a gauzy veil over their trunks.

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We’ve seen it throw a light mantle over rocks.

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It doesn’t stay in the forests. It will colonize the artifacts created by man.

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We’ve even seen it make the ugly concrete edges of a road look lovely!

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The genius of Japanese garden designers is to have fought off the instinct, which we seem to have in the West, of banishing moss from their gardens. Instead, they have welcomed it in with open arms and integrated it into their designs. As a result, no self-respecting Japanese garden is without its moss.

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Given my weakness for Zen gardens, I love the way the designers of these gardens have incorporated moss into their designs.

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Some gardens use moss the way we would use grass, creating “lawns” of moss.

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If the light is right, the effect can be quite magical.

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A good number of temples have extensive moss gardens, where moss covers the floor of the whole garden. The most famous of these is Saiho-ji temple in the western outskirts of Kyoto. It’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s difficult to visit. You have to book months in advance, using a system of return postcards, which is really primitive in this day and age and very difficult to do if you don’t live in the country. But we managed it this time.

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A good number of years ago, as I relate in a previous post, I built my own Zen garden in a corner of our balcony. I had no moss, though, in that garden. The micro-climate on the balcony was too dry and harsh. But maybe, one day, somewhere, I’ll make myself another Zen garden, and this time I will try to incorporate moss.


Bangkok, 7 May 2016

It’s hot here in Bangkok at the moment, very hot.

And it’s humid, very humid.

We drag ourselves through the day, stumbling from one air-conditioned space to another.

We scout the horizon for clouds. Will the cooling rains ever come?

We sweat, we’re thirsty. We go to the fridge to get that bottle of cold, cold water. We pour ourselves a glass. A film of water immediately forms on it.

We drink. Aaaah, sooooo good …

In her garden, my French grandmother had a water pump which looked like this.
When we were children, half a century ago, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by pumping the handle vigorously till the water poured out. Watching us one day, my mother told us that when she had been a child our age, so some time in the late 1920s, early 1930s, before refrigerators were common, on hot summer days she was sent out by various uncles and aunts who were visiting to get a glass of water from that pump. But she was not to take the first water to gush out, no, she was to pump and pump until the water was “bien frappé”, well chilled, enough to form a film on the glass …

That pump stopped pumping 30 years ago. As ever more water was sucked from the aquifer the level dropped, until one day it dropped so far that the pump ran dry. It never pumped a drop of water again.

At my old primary school in Somerset, whose halls I graced half a century ago, there was a bubbling little stream that ran along the edge of the playing fields. We played for hours on it, floating sticks and leaves, building dams, and generally mucking about. It looked like this, minus the horses.
30 years ago, when I visited one summer, it was gone, dried up. The aquifer had dropped too far.

A larger stream ran along the valley floor not too far from my French grandmother’s house. It was a quick bike ride away, and my cousins and I would often go there to catch freshwater crayfish in its clean, clear waters and bathe in a deep, blue pool that had formed in the middle reaches. 20 years later, when I visited, it was turgid and scummy, with froth floating on it.

Bangkok is a water city. It sits on a river and is laced with canals. It should be lovely to travel on its waterways. Instead, it’s like cruising along stinking, fetid sewers. We take a water bus from time to time, when the traffic is really bad, from the Golden Mount Temple to the modern downtown.
Instead of enjoying the passing scenery, I live in dread of spray from the canal landing on my face; God knows what viruses and bacteria populate the water. I always scrub my face vigorously when I get off. As for the river, from our apartment terrace we look down on the rubbish of the city which floats by every day.
Recently, we visited Halong Bay, in Viet Nam, a World Heritage Site. We gazed on the unutterable beauty of the surroundings. But we also gazed at the rubbish floating around us and at the locals’ pathetic attempts to get rid of it.
Are we mad? We guzzle water like there was no tomorrow and treat it like a rubbish dump. Yet we need water, it’s vital to our lives. How can we treat so badly something we absolutely cannot do without?

Glass of water:
Old water pump:
Small stream:
Bangkok canal:
Rubbish in Chao Praya River:
collecting rubbish in Halong bay:


Beijing, 30 March 2013

There is a famous photo of Chairman Mao swimming across the Yangtze River at Wuhan in the summer of 1966.


He joined the annual Cross-Yangtze swimming competition, which had been going since the 1930s (and continues to this day). Actually, he had already taken part in this competition twice before, in 1956 and in 1958. But this time, the locals really pulled out the stops for the Chairman, dragging this huge picture of him across the river along with a placard wishing him 10,000 years of life (I wonder if they made it to the other side or if they sank like a stone halfway across):


The photo is famous because it signaled the start of that national catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. With this swim, Mao was signaling that even though he was 72 he was still strong and healthy enough to lead the country. After it, he went up to Beijing and unleashed the Revolutionary Guards.

This photo came to my mind last weekend, when my wife and I went for a walk, which after several random turns to the left and right brought us to Qianhai lake, one of the string of small lakes that lie to the north-west of the Forbidden City. There, we came across a group of pensioners (it always seems to be pensioners; I have never seen young people doing it) who were swimming to an island in the middle of the lake and back. The poor fellows were having to contend with pesky pedalos – these in the hands of young people; much more fun than swimming – which swarm over these lakes during weekends.

Qianhai lake swimmer 001

We joined the curious crowds watching the swimmers, and I followed their progress with horrified fascination. Professional deformation made me mentally compute all the pollutants that were probably in the water and what they could be doing to the swimmers. But the waters in these lakes are actually much cleaner than the water in that stretch of canal near our apartment which I’ve written about several times in previous posts. The water there is often of a dubious hue, and the sight of dead fish floating on its surface is common. Yet even here, once the ice has gone and the weather gets a little warmer, a group of pensioners emerge from the nearby housing estate and go for stately swims in the canal.

swimmers in canal summer 2013 004

I usually avert my eyes when I see them, since their fate is too terrible for me to contemplate. On this point, I am moved to insert a photo from the summer of a few years ago in Qingdao when there was a terrible algal bloom. Even the Chinese thought this was a bit much.

chinese boy with algae

Yet the pensioners seem to survive. Come to think of it, when I was a young lad and accompanied my English grandmother on her boat on the Norfolk Broads (I have written an earlier post on this), we used to happily swim in lakes and rivers which were uniformly a brown peaty colour and into which all the boats would discharge their … well, you understand where I’m going with this one. My grandmother lived to a ripe old age and I am still alive to tell the tale.

Even so, I would not swim in the canal or in the Beijing lakes for all the money in Christendom. Not because of the pollution but because of the temperature. The Chinese – again, the older folk, as far as I can tell, not the young – feel that cold water is invigorating. The ice is barely broken that they are swimming. In fact, in the north they take a pride in swimming even when there is ice!

chinese swimming Harbin-1

This is definitely not for me. I am, I freely admit it, a wimp when it comes to cold water. Cold water and I do not mix. I have two memories from my youth, seared into my brain. One is swimming in the outdoor swimming pool at primary school. It had just opened, so it must have been early May. I was among the first to go in. I could hardly breathe it was so cold, and by the time I got to the other end of the pool I could not feel anything in any part of my body. The second memory is of a trip to the North Sea beaches of Norfolk with my grandmother – a day off from sailing on the Broads. Entering the water was like being flailed alive. Years later, watching the film Titanic I could viscerally empathize with those poor people who landed in the icy waters of the Atlantic and lasted no more than a few minutes.

titanic sinking

I find even the waters of the Mediterranean in August cold. My children would mock my skittishness about entering the water during our summer holidays in Liguria. The only time I have ever felt really relaxed in seawater was during a trip many, many years ago to Mexico with my wife and mother-in-law, when we went to Isla Mujeres, an island just off the coast from Cancún.

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isla muheres-1

My knees go weak just thinking about that deliciously warm water. It was just like taking a bath. Wonderful.


Mao swimming-1:
Mao swimming-2:
Swimmer in Qianhai lake: my pic
Swimmer in canal: my pic
Chinese boy with algae:
Chinese swimming Harbin:
Titanic sinking:
Isla muheres-1:,%20Isla%20Mujeres,%20Beach,%20Playa%20Norte,%20view%20-%20Photo%20by%20Fideicomiso%20Isla%20Mujeres.jpg
Isla muheres-2: