Saihoji (Kokedera) Temple 西芳寺
Plants mark the passing of the seasons. Here, nearly 120 varieties of moss have created a color palette of infinite varieties of yellow and green. Welcome to the Kokedera Moss Temple.
Kokedera Moss Temple
Saihoji Temple - or, as it is more commonly known: Kokedera (苔寺 "moss temple") - was founded in the fourteenth century and is located on a spacious 2 hectares (4.5 acres) in Matsuo, south west Kyoto, 800 meters (half a mile) south west of Matsuno-o Shrine (Matsuo Taisha).
Saihoji was founded in the early to mid eighth century by the Buddhist priest Gyoki (668–749), who is considered the father of mapping and civil engineering in Japan. Subsequent famous head priests of Saihoji include Kukai (AKA Kobo-Daishi) (774-835), another "Renaissance man" of Japanese history known mainly as the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism, and Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Pure Land (Jodo-shu) school of Buddhism.
After falling into ruin as a result of civil disturbances and wars, Saihoji was rebuilt, and its gardens redesigned, in 1339 by Muso Soseki (AKA Muso Kokushi) (1275-1351), who was a Zen priest, poet, calligrapher, garden designer and the first head priest of Tenryuji Temple in Arashiyama.
Saihoji became a World Heritage Site in 1994, along with 16 other Kyoto temples.
Saihoji's large garden is split level, with the upper level featuring a kare-sansui traditional dry landscape garden, and the lower level a pond shaped like the kanji for "heart" with a strolling path around it, and designed to give the impression that the pond has a geographical connection with the hills in the background.
This innovative design influenced later generations of garden designers and most famously the garden and temple building were used as models for the building of Ginkakuji Temple.
The strolling path is roped on both sides to protect the moss from visitors. However, the path meanders through this almost otherworldly green landscape whose evocation of a wilderness belies careful planning and landscape artistry.
Ironically, the moss, which is now the temple's biggest draw, is the result of the temple and its gardens having been left to go into disrepair at least a century ago, when the temple grounds were flooded, allowing the moss to grow. The nearby Katsura River and the humidity it causes, is also conducive to the health of the moss.
There are an estimated 120 species of moss at Saihoji covering much of the grounds. Fall is a special time to visit, when the temple's trees color the grounds, but the moss is at its greenest in early summer - May and June.
The famous Kyoto-born artist and epicure, Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959) is buried at Saihoji.
Making A Reservation
Unlike with many other temples in Kyoto, you must reserve a visit to Saihoji (Kokedera) well in advance. Write the temple (see address below) with your name, address in Japan (that of a hotel will do), occupation, age (you must be at least 18), number of people in your group, and the date you wish to visit, plus an alternate date.
Include a self-addressed stamped postcard (ofuku hagaki; 往復はがき) available from the post office or a convenience store, or, if sending from overseas, a postcard with an international reply coupon. The ofuku hagaki is a set of two postcards one of which will be used by Saihoji to reply.
This must be done as early as possible: weeks, not days, ahead. Do not show up late for your appointed time.
If you visit any other famous temples in Kyoto, you will appreciate the peace and quiet that your 3,000 yen buys you. Having these famous gardens almost to yourself as you stroll through them in a leisurely fashion, free of the mad scramble of selfie-takers, is worth every yen.
You must bring the permission postcard from the temple in order to enter Saihoji.
You will be part of a group of about 80 people. This may sound like a big group, but Saihoji is a big temple, and easily accommodates this many people without any feeling of crowdedness.
Upon entering Kokedera, you will take part in a session of sutra copying (shakyo). This lasts as long as it takes you to trace with a brush-pen the sutra on tracing paper provided by the temple. You must bring your own brush-pen (fude-pen in Japanese, available from any convenience- or stationery store from as little as about 100 yen) or buy one for 300 yen at the temple.
After completing the shakyo, you are free to stroll through the garden for the next two hours.
Indoor photography is not permitted at Saihoji (Kokedera) but you are free to take photos anywhere outside, including, of course, in the garden.
Address, timetable & access
Saihoji Temple Kokedera Moss Temple
Matsuo Jingatani-cho 56 Nishikyo-ku
Phone+81 (0)75 391 3631
PriceApplication to visit must be submitted in advance. 3,000 JPY per person (cash only). Children under 12 are not permitted.
AccessFrom Kyoto Station take the bus #73 to the "Kokedera Suzumushidera" stop and walk 3 minutes.