Saiho-ji, also knows as the 'moss temple' or Koke-dera, is one of the 5 most famous temples of Kyoto, the other ones being Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji, Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji. Although very famous, it only attracts a limited number of visitors compared to the other 4 big ones, for to enter Saiho-ji you must first write a postcard a few weeks in advance, receive an answer specifying a date and time, and finally pay 3000 yen, probably the most expensive entrance fee in Kyoto. Now, that was to enter the temple. You're still not in the famous moss garden yet: first you will have to either copy sutras or chant them for about 30 minutes. Sounds like a hassle? Definitely. But is it a hassle?
Hardly. The reason for all this, according to the temple, is that the large crowds that were allowed before were not manageable, and the moss of the garden suffered from the incessant (and probably noisy, if moss had ears) passage of these hordes of tourists. The solution they found was simply to allow less people, and make them pay more. And I have to admit that as a photographer this is brilliant, and I wish some other places did the same: fewer people, better manners, and a lot quieter. Perfect for this kind of place! Also, contrary to what these strict rules and the formally dressed person at the entrance may suggest, they are very friendly and will not kick you out after your official visit time has elapsed (I plead guilty of overstaying one hour last time I went there :)
There is little to be said about the copying or chanting, for I don't understand much of it anyway. But it does make you sit and relax, which is very good thing to do before visiting a garden. You will notice that some people leave their little desks earlier, and you don't really have to stay all the way, although it's of course good manners and, as I said, it's worth making that pause. So don't hurry, there'll be plenty of time for the garden anyway. Most visitors only walk the path in the garden once, and relatively quickly, but again take your time, and go around twice if you wish. Once the first crowd is gone, the garden becomes very quiet and you will have more 'nobody'-shots opportunities if photography is your thing.
So what is Saiho-ji anyway? It has an interesting story, and quite an old one at that. Originally, it was the site of the villa of prince Shotoku (572-622 AD). About a hundred years after Shotoku's death, Emperor Shomu ordered the contstruction of 49 temples in central Japan, and that task fell on the shoulders of a priest called Gyoki Bosatsu (obviously he didn't really build 49 temples alone...) Much later in the 14th century, the head priest of the nearby Matsuo-taisha shrine wanted the temple renovated. Pause here for a second, and realize that a shinto priest wanted a Buddhist temple renovated. This is like a Christian priest helping building a mosque! But religions in Japan are not as divided as in Europe, and it was actually not that rare to have them help each other. Anyway, the chief priest (Fujiwara Chikahide) prayed, had a revelation, and paid a visit to zen priest Muso Soseki of Rinsen-ji temple who accepted to reboot Saiho-ji. Muso Soseki was a talented garden designer, and he is the one who made the current gardens.
With the intricate islands and ponds, the global design of the garden is hard to guess from ground level but it is based on the water body being shaped like the character for heart 心 The grounds are almost entirely covered by 120 varieties of moss (yes, that many, and yes, it's hard to spot the differences!). The moss is protected from the sun by a relatively dense canopy of pine trees and maple, the latter being of course particularly nice to see in autumn. For what the moss is concerned, it is better to go right after a nice rain but given that reservations must be made in advance you'll have to be lucky...
Recommended for: Access:
Nearby: Kakuyahime Takegoten かぐや姫御殿 (120m), Suzumushi-dera 鈴虫寺 (130m), Jizō-in 地蔵院 (260m), Jōjū-ji 浄住寺 (430m), Matsuno-taisha 松尾大社 (860m)
External links: ウィキペディア, Wikipedia, Wikipédia, Kyoto Navi, Trip Advisor, Kyoto Design, 京都風光, Inside Kyoto, Marutake, そうだ京都, Satellite view, Map
Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kyoto, 京都, 西京, Nishikyo, 苔寺, Koke-dera, temple, 寺院, 仏閣, 西芳寺, Saihō-ji, UNESCO world heritage