An 8th Century Temple Celebrating Moss


WordsClémence Leleu


Wandering among the lichen-covered trees and moss-covered flower beds of the Saiho-ji Temple, is somehow reminiscent of a Miyazaki film. With a feeling of timelessness, nature orchestrates a sublime display of chiaroscuro, with the sun’s rays subtly illuminating the fluffy moss between the dense foliage of maples and bamboos.

The Saiho-ji Temple, built in the 8th century, is located west of Kyoto City. Nicknamed also Kokedera, literally, temple of moss, it contains more than 120 species of the plant appearing in various colours over the seasons. The greenery is set against the gentle sound of the water burbling across the site, before reaching the pond, located in the middle of the garden, representing the heart.

In the upper part of the temple there is also a Zen garden, where a composition of rocks recreates the shape of a waterfall. This arrangement is considered the first example of a dry garden in Japan.

A Unesco heritage site

Before entering the heart of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors are invited to participate in a Buddhist ceremony during which the monks recite a prayer. Meanwhile, each visitor must copy the calligraphy of a sutra into kanji; an almost meditative moment that epitomises the special atmosphere of the Saiho-ji temple.

In order to protect the mosses that had been somewhat damaged by too many visitors, the managers at Saiho-ji have since put in place various procedures to continue to welcome visitors, while preserving the health of centuries-old mosses.

A ritualised visit

Here things are more ceremonial than administrative. There are no contact forms or email reservations. To enter Saiho-ji, it is necessary to deploy your most beautiful handwriting and start writing a handwritten letter, in English, to ask permission to visit. The temple has a template available on its website.

The letter, preferably sent two months before arrival, must include the names of the persons taking part in the visit and desired dates. To up your chances, it is best to suggest several dates, as the temple has drastically reduced its visitor numbers over recent years.

The next step is to wait, you should receive a response a few weeks later with a coupon with the date and time of visit attributed by the temple. Be warned, admissions can not be delayed, if you are not present at the exact time, your visit may well be denied.

©Akuppa John Wigham

©Bryan Ledgard

©Akuppa John Wigham

©Akuppa John Wigham