Saihoji Moss Temple May 2018

Going with the flow and just winging it when visiting new places is fun but more and more often now advance planning is required in order to visit the more obscure places. For example, over a year ahead for the Great Migration in Africa, 4-6 months ahead for the Galapagos, 4 months ahead for places like Cuba or Bhutan, etc.   I have always wanted to visit Saihoji Moss Temple in Kyoto.  However, visitation requests must be submitted 2 months ahead by return postcard to an address within Japan.  The acceptance postcard will state the day and appointed time for the visit.  If you live outside of Japan, it will be easiest to ask your hotel concierge to take care of it.  Only a limited number of people are allowed to visit each day and no walk-ins allowed even if there is still space.  We were organized enough this time to plan ahead mainly because we had to book our hotel in Naoshima (the only proper hotel on the island) very early.


We departed early in the morning and took the 30-minute train ride from Osaka (where we were based) to Kyoto.  From Kyoto Station, buses take about an hour (no. 73 bus stops about 3 minutes walk away) and taxis about half an hour to reach the moss temple.  We arrived by taxi and departed by bus.  Across from the bus stop is a small restaurant that serves a few kinds of hot or cold soba.  Good for a quick bite before heading to the temple.


Saihoji, founded in the early to mid 8th century, is located in the Arashiyama mountains to the west of Kyoto.  Before it became a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple, it was the site of Prince Shotoku’s villa.  The temple fell into disrepair and in 1339 was rebuilt with the gardens redesigned.  And it is during this period of disrepair when the temple grounds became slowly covered by moss.  It is now famous for this moss garden and hence commonly known as Kokedera (Moss Temple).  It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 as part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” and has over 120 types of moss in the garden.

DSCF0867Entrance to Saihoji

DSCF0940The main prayer hall of Saihoji

They really make you jump thru hoops to visit this temple.  As mentioned already, visitation requests must be submitted in advance.  Then prior to entering the temple grounds, we all have to assemble at low writing desks where we were asked to copy the Heart Sutra using ink and traditional calligraphy brushes while a monk led a chant of a Buddhist sutra.  It is not too difficult for us to copy the sutra as we know the Kanji (essentially Chinese) characters, but regardless, there are templates faintly printed on the rice paper for you to trace.  The real killer is the low writing desk set very close together where you have to kneel or sit crossed legged and your legs are bound to either cramp or fall asleep.  There are about 20 or so normal desks and chairs set up outside the main hall but they are quickly snapped up.

DSCF0869Everyone busy copying the Heart Sutra in order to gain entrance to the moss garden.

The moss garden is built on two levels with a traditional dry landscape garden on the upper level and a pond shaped like the kanji word for “heart” on the lower level with paths winding around it.  The moss covers the ground like a lush green carpet which at first glance can be mistaken as grass.  Because of the fragile nature of moss, the garden is painstakingly taken care of by the monks.  I thoroughly enjoyed the serenity and natural beauty here and my photos really cannot do it justice.


DSCF0879This is not grass but all moss


Next post will be on some other sites I visited in Kyoto this time.  Stayed tuned!

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