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Travel Blog – Kyoto – Kokedera Moss Temple

March 22, 2012

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!

Moss temple in National Geographic Traveler

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.

I’ve blogged before about my obsession with moss: How to make a Moss Terrarium, Terrarium Two – but I never blogged about what started my obsession, a trip to Kyoto’s Moss Temple, Kokedera in 2010.

Kokedera
Kokedera

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.

Kokedera

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.

We took a train from Kyoto to Matsuo:
Train to Matsuo

Matsuo
Matsuo

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.

Kokedera
The Buddhist rites take place in this building. PS. The tables and chairs you see in that photo are a LIE

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!

Kokedera

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!

Kokedera

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.

Kokedera
Kokedera

Kokedera
Kokedera

Kokedera
Kokedera
Moss up close

Kokedera
Kokedera
It was pretty overcast, but the sun came out halfway through our visit! How magical

Kokedera
The famous moss bridge

Kokedera

Kokedera
Me being a dork

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:

Saihoji Temple
56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto
615-8286
JAPAN

Letter to monks
Our letter and reply coupon

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!

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2012 5:40 pm

    Big big big congrats on being published! All of your photos are beyond stunning. You know everytime I see a bit of moss on the sidewalk I think of you…I imagine you digging it out of the ground with a butter knife. Mossy Mel.

  2. March 22, 2012 7:08 pm

    Oooooo so beautiful & green.. Lovely pictures Mel & thanks for the travel tips

  3. March 23, 2012 10:57 am

    Wow congrats on getting your photos published! The moss temple looks amazing – thanks for posting about it otherwise I don’t think I would have ever even known it existed.

    • March 27, 2012 10:19 pm

      Thanks Jacq!! Yess I want everyone to go visit it pretty much… it was one of my favourite places in Japan for sure!

  4. March 24, 2012 9:12 pm

    What a fantastic experience! I have read about the Moss Temple and I played with the idea of visiting last year, didn’t have time to add to my itinerary and the procedure of booking just put it to the bottom of the list.. Thanks for a great post, I want to visit even more now.

    Congrats on the picture publication, that is beyond awesome!

    • March 27, 2012 10:20 pm

      It is definitely a lot of effort (and money)… and it took us a bit of thinking to decide to go as well. But ultimately I’m glad we did! Hope you get a chance in your next trip!!

  5. March 24, 2012 10:13 pm

    Thanks for the travel tips and congrats on getting your photos published!

  6. March 29, 2012 9:10 pm

    Loving the photos! I miss Japan and so want to go back at some point.

  7. April 3, 2012 9:32 am

    Congratulations on your photo being published. So amazing! Your photos are gorgeous and the place is just stunning. One day! Thanks for sharing Mel 🙂

  8. April 4, 2012 9:03 pm

    all the photos are so gorgeous! what an awesome trip you had! congrats!

  9. April 8, 2012 8:16 pm

    Wow – that is awesome work, Mel. You go, girl!!!!

    Such a wonderful post on your trip. Thanks for giving us a sneak peek of an amazing place

  10. May 25, 2012 12:05 pm

    I saw your photos in national geo, followed the directions and hope to go in mid June. Waiting for the response now. Thank you so much!

    • May 28, 2012 9:52 pm

      Hi ej! That’s so exciting to hear 😀 So cool you found me through Nat Geo as well 🙂 Hope my instructions were helpful and hope you get a response back soon! Please let me know how your trip goes, would love to hear from you again!

  11. January 30, 2013 7:35 pm

    thank you! we were looking for easy to understand instructions on how to get there and this looks wonderful!!

    • March 12, 2013 9:03 pm

      I’m glad the instructions were helpful! We had a bit of trouble finding clear instructions for our trip, so I thought it might be good to document what we did.

  12. March 7, 2013 7:53 pm

    Great post – it’s inspired me to apply to go as well in April! Looks like an incredible place! Thanks for the great instructions as well!

    • March 12, 2013 9:02 pm

      So glad to hear that! It’s such an amazing place. Do come back and let me know if you end up going, would love to hear about your experience!

      • April 25, 2013 5:22 pm

        We went and it was absolutely beautiful! It was actually the first temple we went to in Kyoto, and after visiting a few others we realised even more how special it was! Because of the limitations on numbers the garden is always quiet and serene to visit, and in very good condition. We were there in April and it was a little dry, but still beautiful. I imagine that it’s perfect to go in the wet season.

        We got there a little late and that wasn’t a problem. We also didn’t have to do the calligraphy for very long – they are very kind to foreigners! It is absolutely worth the hassle of writing the letter in order to go!

      • May 1, 2013 10:10 pm

        Aw yay! Thanks so much for updating me. I’m so glad you managed to go! It’s definitely worth the little bit of hassle to get permission. Kokedera is definitely one of the most memorable experiences of my Japan trip. It was such a special place, I totally agree!

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  1. Japan: Kyoto Part 3 – Ben and Viv's Travels

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