Discover Saihoji: The Ancient Moss Temple of Kyoto

It is said that Kyoto is home to thousands of  temples and shrines. You’ve probably already heard of the most famous ones: Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion), and Kiyomizudera among others. These historic, sacred places should be on everyone’s must-see list. However, if you’re like me, and find yourself visiting Kyoto on a regular basis, you’re going to want to get off the beaten path (and away from the crowds of tourists). That’s where Saihoji, also known as Kokedera (the moss temple), enters the picture.


Beyond your expectations

I’ll be perfectly honest—when I heard that there was a “moss temple” in Kyoto, I wasn’t particularly excited. The thought of trekking across the city to see a moss garden conjured images of watching grass grow. Thankfully, recollections of my past experiences in Kyoto quickly brought me to my senses. Gardens based on the simplest of concepts (e.g. a stone garden) can be some of the most beautiful, tranquil places in the world. Saihoji, a temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, is no exception.

A truly historic temple

Originally established as a villa for Prince Shotoku during the Asuka Period (538 – 710 A.D.), Saihoji’s rich history as a Zen temple dates back to the middle of the eighth century. During that time, Gyoki Bosatsu, a leading priest of the era was tasked by Emperor Shomu to establish 49 temples in the region. Saihoji is one of those temples, and according to official literature, it was erected to enshrine three images representing Amitabha divinities.

The Kojokan: a gate leading to the Shitokan, a small temple within the moss garden. The Kojokan symbolizes the first barrier we must face when attempting to achieve our ambitions.

According to the Saihoji official website, Saihoji served as a template for many of Kyoto’s most famous temples, including Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji. That makes sense considering just how much longer Saihoji has been around (many of the more well-known temples were founded during the Kamakura Period, more than 700 years ago).

In 1994, Saihoji earned the distinct honor of being registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site ( a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto). Only 17 out of Kyoto’s thousands of temples have earned this distinction.

Hopefully, you’re now convinced that Saihoji and its rich history are worth exploring. Don’t hop on the next shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Kyoto just yet, though. You’ll have to go through some special procedures to visit Saihoji. Read on for a step-by-step guide.

How to visit and enjoy Saihoji

This building, attached to the main hall, acts as a foyer where you’ll gather before participating in Buddhist rituals.

Japan is going through an unprecedented tourism boom. While massive cities like Tokyo and Osaka have the infrastructure to absorb large influxes of visitors, Kyoto is a much smaller city and in some ways struggles to host its newfound enthusiastic visitors. In order to balance the benefits of tourism while protecting ancient natural treasures, Saihoji has implemented a registration system that all visitors must complete before entering the temple grounds.

Whether you are visiting from overseas or from within Japan, you can apply for your visit via the temple’s official website. When applying, leave some flexibility in your schedule, as you may not be able to get the exact date or time that you desire. Reservations are accepted from two months before your visit, and I recommend applying as early as possible.

Once you receive a response from the temple, you’re good to go. That being said, I have a few tips for you to consider once you are in Kyoto.

  • – As the website mentions, be sure to arrive at least 15 minutes before your scheduled time. You can reach the temple from central Kyoto via bus, train, or taxi. Give yourself plenty of time to account for the delays that can come with each mode of transportation (e.g. rush-hour traffic).
  • – Upon arrival, be sure to request English-language information and instructions for the tour and ceremony in which you’ll be participating.
  • – Speaking of the ceremony, be prepared to participate in a Buddhist chanting and calligraphy session before being allowed to roam the temple grounds. Unlike this Buddhist experience, there is no English translation for the incantations, so be prepared to simply relax and take in the atmosphere.
  • – There are also no English-language instructions for the calligraphy session. So either brush up (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) on the basics beforehand or simply observe what others are doing during the session.
  • – There is a time limit. Including the mandatory chanting and calligraphy session, you are allowed to remain in the temple grounds for about two hours. You’ll have more than half of this time to roam freely. If you finish your contemplative stroll through the moss gardens early, feel free to take another lap, but don’t linger beyond your scheduled departure time.

 

Up close and personal with the moss that fills the gardens of Saihoji.

Don’t just take it from me

For this trip, I was fortunate enough to be joined by a group of my closest friends from the U.S.A., and they were kind enough to share their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say:

“It’s a very welcome contrast for those who came to Japan interested in giant robots, kei cars, and skyscrapers.”
-Zadock
“The initial ceremony put me in a state of self-reflection and introspective thought. It allowed me to be at peace when it was time for me to walk through the garden.”
-Ricky
“This is the most beautiful place that I’ve ever seen. Take a second walk through the garden after the crowds thin out. Spend time watching how light and wind moves through the environment.”
-Suzi
“I liked how we could participate in the chanting and calligraphy sessions. It gave me a chance to experience more aspects of Japanese culture that I wasn’t familiar with.”
-Lily
“It’s really nice that the number of people that can enter the temple is limited. It gives you more of an old-school Kyoto feel. It may cost more and be harder to access than other temples, but it’s definitely worth it.”
-Rob

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AUTHOR

Anthony

Anthony

Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.

Information

Address 56 Matsuojingatanicho,
Nishikyo Ward,
Kyoto,
Kyoto Prefecture
615-8286
Hours Open from 10:00 a.m. during July to September
From 01:00 p.m. for other months
Visit on reservation only
Price 3000 yens
Close None
Access 20mn on foot
from Kami-katsura station
(Hankyu-arashiyama Line)
Phone 075-391-3631
Language Japanese
Website http://saihoji-kokedera.com/en/top.html