Known as the “Moss Temple” or Kokedera Temple, Saiho-ji in Kyoto is home to one of Japan’s finest moss gardens. Built in 1339, the Zen temple was designed by monk Muso Soseki. However, it was the luxurious moss garden that made Saiho-ji rise to fame. Its beauty recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage Site committee, Saiho-ji’s garden contains over 120 different species of moss.
Saiho-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple that was built to honor Amitabha. In 1994, after being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple’s moss garden became the star of the show. The expansive temple grounds are covered almost entirely in moss, making the forest look as if it came out of a fairytale. Lush green moss carpets the area surrounding the heart-shaped Golden Pond, making it a sight to behold. The moss garden is also designated as a Special place of Scenic Beauty and a Historic Site, its many titles bolstering its status as one of Kyoto’s most prized treasures.
Due to the fragile nature of the moss garden, visits are only available via a guided tour and upon prior reservation. Saiho-ji’s restrictive admissions policy was put in place to protect the temple grounds from overcrowding. If you’re lucky enough to visit, don’t forget to admire the views from within the temple building itself!
The upper floor of Saiho-ji’s famed garden is the Karesansui Style Garden. Unlike its lower floor, this garden is made entirely out of rocks. It was said that the creator, Muso Kokushi, meant for this to be his grave. However, he decided to let the garden live on as a symbol of Zen Spirituality. In 1339 when it was built, it was common to have ponds and water in Zen gardens. Yet Muso Kokushi chose to use rocks to portray this spirit, an innovative idea that served as inspiration to many others. The Karesansui-style garden in Saiho-ji is also regarded as Japan’s founder of rock gardens.
The lower floor of the famed moss garden is a classical-style garden. Amongst the lush foliage and green moss carpets is the Ougonchi Pond. The heart-shaped pond lies at the center of the garden, producing stunning reflections in the water on a clear day. Also known as Shinji Ike, the term ‘heart’ is also known as the Chinese character 心, giving the pond a second identity as the “Heart Pond”. Both gardens are recognised as Historic Sites and Places of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese Government.
Built during the Toyotomi Period, the Shonantei Tea House is a historic building recognised by Kyoto as a National Treasure. The tea house was allegedly used as a hiding spot for Iwakura Tomomi during the Meiji Restoration. Now, Shonantei is also known for being a moon-watching spot in Northern Kyoto.
To visit Saiho-ji, one must make a reservation at least 1-2 months in advance. The guided tour includes an exclusive meditation and sutra chanting service, in addition to the comprehensive 90-minute tour of the gardens. It’s best to seek the advice of your hotel to help arrange a reservation as the process is mostly in Japanese.
5-minute walk from Kokedera Bus Stop
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