Kyoto is a great places to visit during the sakura (cherry blossom) season and during autumn, when the momiji (Japanese maple trees) are ablaze with beautiful hues of gold and red. The many temples that crisscross Kyoto afford ample opportunities to walk the grounds and commune with nature. But Kyoto also has another natural attraction that lures people by the thousands each year. What I am referring to is Kyoto’s famous moss temple, Koke-dera (苔寺) or (Saihoji).
The original temple is said to have been established by the monk Gyoki during the Nara period. Over time, the temple fell into disrepair and in 1339 it was revived as a Zen temple and renamed Saihoji. The temple grounds are covered with more than 120 types of moss, resembling a beautiful green carpet. It is said that the moss came into existence following the floods during the Edo period. The garden, situated on the eastern temple grounds is arranged as a circular promenade surrounding a pond, shaped like the character for kokoro (heart). Within the pond, there are three small islands: Asahi (sunrise) Island, Yuhi (sunset) Island and Kiri (mist) Island.
There are three tea houses within the garden. Shonan Tei was built in the 14th century but subsequently destroyed. The tea house you see today is the reconstructed version. The Shoan Do was constructed in 1920 and houses the wooden image of Sen Shoan after whom the teahouse derives its name. Tanhoku Tei was donated to the temple in 1928.
The garden is acclaimed by many to be one of Kyoto’s most beautiful gardens. After visiting this magnificent place, it won’t come as a surprise that the temple and grounds were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
However, a word of caution when visiting Koke-dera. In an effort to protect the moss, the temple has required advance reservations since 1977! Requests must be submitted in writing and should include your name and mailing address, your preferred date of visit and the number of people in your party. The best times to view the garden are during the rainy season (mid-June through mid-July) and in autumn, when the red and gold of the momiji contrast nicely with the lush green of the velvety moss. There is an entrance fee of ¥3,000 payable in cash and all visitors are asked to participate in a ceremonial ritual prior to accessing the outdoor area.
The temple is located at 56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 615-8286.