The gardens at the temples in Japan are some of the best in the world, but the best of the best is the moss garden at Saihoji Temple (also called Kokedera) in Kyoto. Anyone can make a flower look beautiful, but it takes talent to create a breathtaking landscape made entirely of lowly moss, and this talent earned the garden a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
The temple and garden used to be open to the public, but they became so popular that the crowds threatened to destroy the moss. Now visitation it is by invitation only, and in order to get invited, you have to send a written request to the temple. Do this about four to six weeks before you would like to visit. Include in your request your name, age and gender of you and those traveling with you, your address in Japan, your home address and proposed dates to visit. It is best to list a preferred date as well as one or two alternates. In addition to your request, include a self-addressed envelope with an international voucher for return postage. Send the request and return envelope to:
56 Matsuo Kamigatani-cho
A few weeks later, your invitation with the date and time of your visit will arrive in your self-addressed envelope. Pack it in a safe place as you will need it to get into the temple and garden.
Saihoji Temple is located about as far west as you can go in Kyoto before hitting the mountains. Getting there is not hard. From Karasuma Station in central Kyoto, take the private (non-JR) Hankyu Line four stops to Katsura station and then change trains and go one stop to Kamikatsura station. The cost is 220 yen and the ticket machines are not in English. To use them, first put your money in, then select your number of tickets and the fare. To calculate your fare, look at the big map; all of the stations have a price next to their names, which is the fare to get there from where you are.
At Kamikatsura station, an attendant will give you a walking map of the area (there are other temples and shrines nearby). Saihoji is about a 15-minute walk from the station. When you exit the station, you may think “Is this it?” Don’t worry-the closer you get to the mountains and the temple, the prettier the area becomes. When you get to the temple, show your invitation at the gate and you will be shown in. At the main desk, you will be given a packet and you will pay your 3000 yen donation. You will be asked to remove your shows and then you will be shown into the temple.
Once inside the temple, you will be directed to a small writing desk. Kneel down and take the sutra out of your packet. Using the brush and ink, trace over the Kanji characters, starting at the right and going down the column. You don’t have to trace the whole thing, but why wouldn’t you? There is a Buddhist ceremony that lasts about 10 minutes, and when it’s over and you have finished tracing the sutra, write your name and address and wish on the side of the paper and take it to the altar.
After all of this, it is time for the moss gardens. There are 120 different kinds of moss here and the forest floor looks like lush, green carpet. It is very quiet and peaceful and not very crowded. Please take your time here; it took a lot of work to make a garden out of moss and it took a lot preparation for you to get here to see it.
Not every post office has international vouchers, so go to the largest one in your area. Allow about an hour in the temple and an hour in the moss garden.
At 3000 yen, this is easily the most expensive temple in Kyoto, but the invitation, ceremony and copying of the sutra, not to mention the moss, all add up to make a once-in-a-lifetime experience.