There are thousands of temples in the greater Kyoto area, more than a person can ever hope to see even in several years of living in the city. So what makes Saihoji – also known as Kokedera, or the Moss Temple – so special? And why am I putting it under the “Experience” category. Read on and you’ll see why a visit to Saihoji is a complicated – yet unforgettable (for me, at least) – event.
As I am about to detail below, you would actually think that the temple has more things working against it than recommending it. To visit the temple itself requires advance permission from temple officials. The only way of obtaining an entrance permit is to send an ofuku hagaki (return postcard) to the temple no more than two months before your visit and then wait for the response. For non-residents of Japan, this can be an extremely frustrating process.
Once you have your permission card in hand, set aside a good half day in your itinerary to make the journey out to the temple. Saihoji lies on the edge of the Arashiyama neighborhood, already a slight haul from downtown Kyoto. When I went, I started with a train ride to Saga-Arashiyama (20 minutes) and then hopped on a bus a few blocks from the station and rode it to its terminus (20-25 minutes).
Once you arrive at Saihoji (and don’t be late!), be prepared to fork over the entrance fee. While most temples post a ¥300-¥500 admission charge, the price of admission to Kokedera is a whopping ¥3000. Bring exact change. Though the language on your permission card may mention “donation”, please don’t be fooled. This is an obligatory fee.
Wait – you’re not done! You’ll next be asked to participate in a prayer and sutra copying session. According to people I’ve spoken with who visited Kokedera in years past, this process has become notably easier but still expect it to take about twenty minutes of time. You’ll be shown to a seat on the floor of the temple, with a little desk for each participant. Two sheets of prayers (read from up to down and right to left, if you are curious) are available for visitors to follow along while the monks chant. If you can do it, feel free to chant with them. (I could read the furigana, but my mouth just couldn’t move that fast. :P) The first prayer will be repeated three times. The second one I only remember hearing twice. After the prayers, you will be expected to take the bookmark-like paper on the desk to record your own personal prayer (onegai). Use your inkstone and ink brush to first write your name and address on the back side (the side without the stamp on it). Then write a simple prayer on the front. (No instructions in English – or any foreign language for that matter – are given at any point of the process, but no one will chastise you if you “mess” something up.)
When you are finished writing your prayer, take it to the middle of the room, kneel down and place it on the altar. Feel free to offer a silent personal petition or simply stand up and let the next person go. Then, and only then, are you free to visit the garden itself.
By this point, I had spent over an hour getting to the temple and another 20-25 minutes puzzling out the prayer process. My only thoughts were that this garden had better be worth it.
And you know what?
Now I am a garden lover, so I have seen a lot of Japanese gardens and probably find enjoyment in them where some may find only boredom. The moss garden, however, was truly unique. Designed by Zen priest Muso Soseki in the 14th century, the garden is a sea of various shades of green, all swirling around a pond shaped like the kanji character for “heart”. If you think a single palette color is boring in a garden, I dare you to come to Saihoji and not be impressed. I prefer a splash of color in my garden scenes, but never have I seen simple moss be so darn photogenic. My camera got quite the workout here.
The garden covers quite a bit of ground so allow for at least half an hour to complete the circuit. I, personally, didn’t linger much longer due to a lunch reservation back in the city, so I am unsure if the priests will rush you out before the next group or not.
Is it worth it? I’d say yes, with some caveats. Garden lovers, photographers, Zen enthusiasts and bucket listers should all include this on their itinerary. If you’re on a budget or really couldn’t be bothered by yet another Japanese garden, stay closer to the city with your sightseeing and find something else to fill your morning or afternoon. In Kyoto, that’s not at all difficult to do.
Unfortunately, I can no longer assist with reservations to Saiho-ji Temple.