Kyoto is famous for many things, especially its beautiful temples. One of them, the Saiho-ji Temple (also known as ‘Moss temple’ or ‘Koke-dera’) is exceptional because you won’t actually find this kind of Zen temple anywhere else.
There is a marvelous garden inside Saiho-ji, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a site of heritage because of its unique beauty. This garden is completely covered in thick smooth moss similar to that of the forests of Yakushima, another great heritage spot to visit. Read on for more information on this charming, unique temple.
Saiho-ji temple is one of the oldest temples in Japan, and its moss garden was redeveloped in the early 14th century by a great Zen priest, Muso Soseki, who also designed many other gardens in Japan. The garden has inspired many other gardens in Japan, including one in the famous Ginkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto.
Despite being the most-loved garden in Kyoto for centuries, it went into a state of neglect during the Edo Period, which is when the garden started growing moss. It is thought that you can spot around 120 different types of moss here at Saiho-ji.
When you visit, you will find that the garden has beautiful heart-shaped ponds within the ‘chisenkaiushiki (a type of gardening style)’ section, while the other portions have simple greenery.
There is a booking process to gain access to Saiho-ji temple and you are expected to secure a reservation prior to your visit.
You cannot enter the temple without postcard approval and must pay a fee of 3000 yen, which came into effect from 2016. To visit the moss garden you must go through the temple first, so you can’t just go to the garden. You are also expected and shown how to perform ‘shakyo’, a tradition of writing traditional sutra in ink to pay your respects to Buddha’s teachings. This is genuinely a once in a lifetime experience, so the effort is definitely worth it!
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You should inform the temple authorities of your visit at least a week before you intend to go. All you need to do is to go to your nearest post office and obtain a postcard from them, which is called an ‘oufuku hagaki’ in Japanese. This postcard is able to be returned to you by the person you send it to.
Right under the ‘From’ (henshin) section on one side of the card, you should state your name and address, and to the right of those details give your intended visiting date. If you are traveling in a group, make sure you give the identity and postal address of the person leading the group, including how many people are in the group.
On the other side of the postcard, you will notice the word ‘oushin’ (往信) under which you should write the temple’s address. Leave the rest of the space empty for the temple to give you a specific time and date that is convenient for them to welcome you.
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One important rule is that you are expected to stick to walking on the paths that are laid out, and not step on the moss inside the garden.
Be advised that there are many Japanese agencies in Japan with English or Mandarin speaking guides, who can help you reserve your visit and also accompany you to the Saiho-ji temple. This can make the process of booking easier for you, but do be prepared to pay more money than if you reserved a visit yourself.
Please try to be flexible with your schedule, because there is no guarantee that the temple will be able to welcome you on the exact same date and time that you requested.
Finally, try to use public transportation and walking to reach the temple instead of personal or rented vehicles, because they won’t be able to park very near the site.
Although the reservation process seems long, it is well worth visiting this UNESCO temple as you can learn about the great history of Rinzai Buddhism, Japanese traditional gardening techniques, and so on. You also have the privilege of observing the beauty of this charming place which is often missed by visitors to Kyoto!
Do not hesitate to get in touch with one of the many travel agencies who can provide reservation services for Saiho-ji, as it is one of the best places in Kyoto to really learn about Japanese tradition and history.