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Saihō-ji Temple 西芳寺

Moss Garden, Saihō-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by Jean-Marie Hullot, retouched by Maciamo - CC BY 3.0)

Saihō-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple well-known for its moss garden. It is commonly referred to as "Koke-dera" (苔寺 ; "moss temple"). It is one of the 13 Buddhist temples in Kyōto listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

History

The temple was founded in the 8th century by the priest Gyōki on the location of one of Prince Shōtoku's former villa. Saihō-ji was originally affiliated to the Hossō sect of Buddhism, and was dedicated to Amida Nyorai (Amitābha in Sanskrit).

The temple gradually fell into disrepair. In 1339, the chief priest of the nearby Matsunoo Shrine, Fujiwara Chikahide, summoned the Zen monk and gardener Musō Soseki (1275-1351) to help him revive Saihō-ji as a Zen temple. Musō changed the second character of the temple's name from 方 to 芳 to reflect its new Zen aspirations.

Musō Soseki's garden was a typical Zen dry garden (karesansui). The moss came much later, probably in the 18th or 19th century, as a result of floods, neglect and insufficient upkeep. Most of Saihōji's buildings burned down during the disastrous Ōnin War (1467-1477). The grounds were twice ravaged by floods during the Edo Period, leaving the temple in ruins by the 18th century. Ironically enough, Saihō-ji is one of Japan's most earnestly protected temples in spite of the fact that its buildings and the moss that made its garden famous are all recent and bear little resemblance to the historical compound.

Moss Garden, Saihō-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by Ivanoff - CC BY 3.0)
Moss Garden, Saihō-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by Ivanoff - CC BY 3.0)

Grounds

The garden is laid out around a pond shaped like the Chinese character for "heart" (心), which contains three small islands. A circular promenade circumnavigates this so-called Golden Pond (黄金池 ; ōgonchi). It boasts a startling 120 types of moss. In the upper reaches is an imaginary reproduction of what Musō Soseki's dry landscape garden might have looked like, although nobody really knows, of course.

The best times to visit Saihō-ji is in summer, when moss is at its greenest, or in autumn, when the garden's luxuriant biodiversity takes on interesting shades of colours.

Opening Hours & Admission

The tricky part about visiting Saihōji is the admission. Since 1977 measures were taken to reduce the number of tourists in order to preserve the fragile moss. First of all, the entrance fee is ¥3000 per person - the highest in Kyōto. Then, the temple can only be visited by means of a prior written application. It should be sent to:

Saihōji
56 Kamigatani
Matsuo, Nishikyō-ku
615-8286 Kyōto

Make sure that the application arrive at least 7 working days in advance. You should enclose a prepaid return postcard (if you are writing from Japan, this is called a ōfuku hagaki - 往復はがき), mention your name, age (minimum 18) and mailing address, your preferred date and an alternate date. You will receive a written confirmation with the date and time. Be sure to arrive on time.

If this is not enough to discourage you, be aware that visitors are required to take part in a two-hour session that includes Zazen practice, sutra chanting and sutra transcription before being allowed to the moss garden.

How to get there

Saihōji is located against a hillside over 1 km west of the Katsura-gawa River. The easiest way to reach it is by bus. Saihōji is the terminus of Kyōto Bus lines No 63, 73 and 83. You can catch the #63 from Kōryū-ji or Arashiyama. The #73 also uses this route, but starting from Kyōto Station via Shijō-Karasuma, and the #83 from Kyōto Station via Karasuma-Gojō.

If you prefer coming by train, you should take the Hankyū Kyōto line to Katsura, then transfer to the Arashiyama line for one stop till Kamikatsura. This journey only takes 12 minutes (¥180) from Kawaramachi Station, but you will need to walk the last kilometre (due west) to the temple.

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