Visiting Saiho-ji, Kyoto's Moss Temple

Visiting Saiho-ji, Kyoto's Moss Temple

While it often pays to wing it and just go with the flow when exploring a new place (according to my husband, at least), today I'd like to present a case for vacation pre-planning. Don't worry, I'm not trying to lure you over to the dark side - that place where day morphs into night while you've been hunched over your laptop, crafting a Google map of your destination with 300 saved pins on it - I do not wish my FOMO-induced anal-retentiveness on anyone.

Moving on!

I recently had the pleasure of returning to Kyoto - with my mom and baby brother in tow - and I had my heart set on the one reservation that had eluded me on my previous visit: Saiho-ji.

Commonly referred to as Koke-dera (meaning "moss temple"), Saiho-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple and Unesco World Heritage Site located on the southwest side of Kyoto, nestled against the rolling foothills of Arashiyama.

The draw for most visitors to Saiho-ji is the temple's garden, which boasts over 120 different varieties of moss - the serendipitous result of neglect. Following a flood back in the Edo period, the temple's garden fell into disrepair and was subsequently blanketed by a pillowy carpet of lush green. Today, the moss is carefully and lovingly manicured to create a space so enchantingly beautiful it will leave you speechless.

In order to limit the number of visitors, Saiho-ji requires that those who wish to wander its stone-paved paths apply for entrance permission by postal mail. This rather tricky process for foreigners must be completed several months in advance, a point at which most prospective travelers are likely to be just beginning their Kyoto research.

Alas, here I am to save the day! Keep on scrollin' for everything you need to know in order to make your Saiho-ji reservation - and plenty more photographs to inspire your efforts.


plan your visit

If you live overseas, I suggest utilizing a Japan-based reservation service to submit your request. This is due to the fact that the temple will only accept reservation requests by snail mail, and replies - which require a Japanese postage stamp - will only be sent to addresses within Japan. A simple Google search will turn up various domestic reservation services - this one will take care of the process for you in return for a fee of 2,200 JPY (20 USD). The most important thing to note here is that your request should be submitted at least two months in advance of your desired visit (early bird gets the worm - or rather, sees the moss!).

A second option, if you've booked a swanky hotel for your stay in Japan, is to utilize your hotel concierge. Higher-end hotels might be willing to assist in the reservation process if you give them enough of a heads-up.

If you reside within Japan, you're in luck - the reservation process is much cheaper. Here's the step-by-step breakdown to score your ticket to moss land:

  1. Head to your local post office and purchase an ofuku hagaki (reply-paid postcard). Those sold by Japan Post have a blue stamp on one side and a green stamp on the reverse. This website provides a great visual explanation of how to use the postcard.

  2. Directly underneath the blue stamp, address your postcard to:

    Saiho-ji Temple
    56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
    Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, 615-8286

    The space to the right is left blank for the temple's reply.

  3. On the opposite side, directly underneath the green stamp, write your name and address. In the space to the right, indicate that you are requesting to visit the temple. Be sure to include your name, age (you must be over 18) and occupation, as well as the number of visitors in your group and your desired date of visit (I recommend giving two or three possible choices).

  4. Drop your postcard in the mail and hope for the best! I sent my request six weeks in advance, and it took about two weeks before I received a reply back.

  5. If approved, the temple will indicate your allotted date and time of visit on the reply postcard. The reply I received had explanations in both Japanese and English. This is your entrance ticket, so don't lose it!

good to know

To increase your odds of scoring a reservation, aim to visit on a weekday and avoid Japanese national holidays all together. Japan has a lot of holidays - check here before submitting your desired dates.

Saiho-ji is best reached by bus. The temple is a 2-minute walk from the Koke-dera/Suzumushi-dera bus stop, accessible via Kyoto Bus #73 or #83 from Kyoto Station. The trip takes about one hour and costs 230 yen each way.

Do NOT forget to bring your entrance ticket! You won't get past the front gate without it.

Do NOT be late! Even if you arrive just five minutes past your scheduled visit, the temple doors are likely to be locked.

Be sure to have cash on hand for the temple entrance fee (3,000 JPY/person). The price is steep, but worth it.

Before entering the garden, you must take part in kito (chanting of the sutra, or Buddhist scripture). Don't freak out - it's not necessary that you speak, write or understand Japanese for this. Upon entering the temple, you will take a seat at one of the low writing desks that line the inside of the main building. When everyone has settled, a monk will enter and begin to lead the room in a chant. While I didn't understand anything being said during this time, I found it very moving to be present for this ancient, sacred tradition. Kito is followed by the practice of shakyo (copying of the sutra by calligraphy), but a temple attendant who was quietly making his rounds among the foreigners in attendance instructed us to simply write down our name, address and a personal prayer/wish to be presented at the temple's altar.

Expect to spend about 90 minutes in total at Saiho-ji. (Longer if you take a bajillion photos like I did.)

For more ideas on what to do and see in Kyoto, check out my quick guide here!

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

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