Formally known as Koinzan Saiho-ji, or Saiho-ji for short, this Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple is located in Matsuo in the western part of the Kyoto city area. With over 120 varieties of moss present in the two-tiered garden, the temple is often referred to as koke-dera, meaning “moss temple.”
In 1994, Saiho-ji was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto. It is open to the general public in small groups on a reservations-only basis via a return-postcard system. Because the system is based on traditional mail, reservations should be sought by sending a postcard at least seven days before the intended day of visit. International visitors can apply to visit Koke-Dera with a postcard or letter by enclosing an international reply coupon. The date and time you are invited to visit will be written on the return-postcard, and that marks the time to make your Kyoto travel plans.
Arriving at Koke-Dera
The Moss Temple can be reached by the Hankyu Railway line from Osaka (Osaka Umeda Station) or Kyoto (Karasuma Station) to Katsura Station, and, from there, by a 12-minute taxi ride to Koke-Dera.
The temple can also be reached by bus from Kyoto Station on Kyoto Bus Line 73 (Kyoto Station bus stop C5), getting off at the bus stop for Kokedera, Suzumushidera.
Once you reach the entrance to the temple, you will be welcomed by a temple monk.
You will be guided to the reception area, where you will receive a map of the temple grounds and asked to pay ￥3,000 JPY — easily the most expensive temple visit fee in all of Kyoto.
Make sure you arrive 15-20 minutes before the scheduled time so you can be seated in the waiting room. Otherwise, you will be standing and waiting for the pre-visit ceremonies to begin.
Meditation, Sutra Chanting, and Making A Prayer
Once all the guests have arrived, the monks will lead you to the main hall, and you will be seated in front of a small table with a calligraphy set. After everyone has taken their place, you will learn about the history of Koke-Dera, participate in Zen meditation, chant sutras with the monks and other guests, then finally write your name, address, and prayer on a small rectangular wooden plank. After writing your prayer, you are invited to the center of the hall to place it on a table. My prayer was for good health.
Following the Green Carpet Path
After all the ceremonial activities are completed, you can finally make your way to the temple grounds. The stone and dirt path will lead you around the temple, where you can see beams of the sun’s rays trickle through the trees and branches, spotlighting the lush green carpet.
The pond in the center of the garden is shaped like the kanji character for “heart” or “mind” (心, kokoro), and filled with the clearest water you will ever see. Reflecting on this while surrounded by the powerful green scenery and sounds of nature is definitely refreshing.
Visit Now or Later?
Visits to Koke-Dera can be arranged throughout the year. However, a summer visit between early June and late July — after the rainy season — is highly recommended. During this time the moss thickens, giving it a strong, lush aesthetic. Alternatively, you can visit during sakura season or in late autumn, when the sakura or colored leaves provide a gorgeous contrast to the moss, emphasizing the richness of the green garden.
Learn more about Koke-Dera here.
Author: Galileo Ferrari