Travel Blog – Kyoto – Kokedera Moss Temple
Some exciting news to share! One of my photographs of Kyoto’s Moss Temple has been published in this month’s National Geographic Traveler magazine!
It is so exciting to see it in print! And doubly exciting because I’m going to use this opportunity to sneakily make a post I’ve been meaning to write about Moss Temple. This is going to be super photo-heavy so be warned.
Kokedera literally translates to “Moss Temple” but its real name is Saihoji temple. Saihoji is a Zen Buddhist temple located in Matsuo, Nishikyō Ward, Kyoto. It’s most renowned for its garden – which, as you may have guessed, features a whole lot of moss – over 120 species in fact – all of which is meticulously maintained and protected. In fact the temple is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In fact, the monks of Saihoji are so mindful of the delicate moss that visitors to Moss Temple are extremely limited. Wary of being overrun by tourists – the monks of Saihoji put in place a series of strict regulations for visiting:
- Visitors must apply in advance to visit – in writing
- There is a high fee charged for entry (¥3000 per person, approx $35 AUD) – the highest entry fee for any temple in Kyoto
- Before you are allowed into the garden, visitors must participate in the Buddhist religious rites of kito and shakyo – chanting and copying the Buddhist sutra (Buddhist scriptures)
Intense right?? But so worth it.
We started our day pretty early – since we had a booking at 10am at Kokedera and had read around that we should UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES be late.
Matsuo is a town outside of Kyoto’s city centre – it’s incredibly gorgeous… like a storybook or the backdrop to a Ghibli film. Kokedera is only 10mins walk from Matsuo station, so luckily we get there with plenty of time to spare.
After presenting our permission slip, and paying our entry fees, we are ushered into a massive room filled with row upon row of short little desks on tatami mats. We’re instructed to sit in seiza (sitting on your knees) on top of flat little cushions (zabuton). Luckily, though the majority of people in the room were Saihoji’s Buddhist monks and other visiting monks, there are quite a few other bewildered looking tourists there too – and a very helpful monk is able to give us instructions in English.
All at once, the monks begin to chant. WOW what an amazing sound. It resonates through your body.
On top of the low tables in front of us are papers with the Buddhist sutra printed on it – both in romanji for us foreigners to follow, and in Japanese. The intention is for you to chant along, but the monks move at such a rate that it is no time before I am completely lost. There are also calligraphy brushes, sticks of ink and ink stones on each of our tables, but no one around us is using them, so I leave them alone. Only afterwards do I learn that we were meant to be copying out the characters onto paper, oops! No one seems to mind though.
Can I just tell you that sitting on your knees is REALLY HARD! Oh my goodness… after about 10 minutes my legs go completely numb and it’s all I can do to not tip over. Some of the other tourists seem to be having my same problem – I see a bit of wobbling in our ranks. After a while, we start sheepishly unfolding our legs, and instead sit crosslegged. At least we gave it a try!
After about 1/2 an hour – the chanting ends almost as suddenly as it began (how embarrassing would it be to be that monk who kept going?) – small wooden placards called ema are passed around, and we’re instructed to write our wishes on them with calligraphic brushes, as well as our name and address. These are collected, for the monks to pray over.
Now that the hard work is done, we’re given entry into the garden!
There is a brief talk in Japanese for the benefit of the visiting monks, who – much to my delight, take photos of the garden using their mobile phones! Even monks use keitai!
We’re given free reign to wander along the garden’s track – which is a roped and paved walkway (you aren’t allowed to touch the moss of course)
I’d been looking forward to visiting Moss Temple for so long (it’d been my desktop wallpaper at work for for a few months beforehand as motivation) – and amazingly it’s even more beautiful that I imagined.
You can check out more of my photos from Moss Temple (including more of me being a dork) here on Flickr.
I can honestly describe it as one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve ever been to – but I like I said, it takes a bit of effort to get to. Here’s my handy guide –
How to Visit Moss Temple/Kokedera/Saihoji:
To gain entrance to Moss Temple you have to write a letter to the Zen monks at Saihoji and ask for permission to visit. In your letter, you must nominate the day you wish to visit (plus an alternate date to be safe), and the number of people in your party.
(Yep. Definitely a letter. Zen monks don’t read email…)
Along with the letter you must include either a prepaid return postcard (common in Japan) or a self addressed envelope and an international reply coupon (which you can purchase at any Australia Post branch)
Send your letter to:
56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
Make sure you send your letter a few months before you visit! It takes the monks a few weeks to reply. I cannot stress this enough! We sent our letter on the 26th of August, optimistically hoping we would get a reply in time to leave for Japan on the 7th of September – nope! The permission slip arrived in Sydney on the 10th – and luckily my dad was able to scan it and email it to me. We spent a fun evening in Kyoto trying to work out how to print out a PDF in a convenience store.
If your application is successful, you will be sent a permission slip, with the relevant information.
You’ll have to bring this with you when you visit!