The moss temple is not the least known point of interest in Kyoto, but given the relative difficulty to get there, few Western visitors care to visit it. Yet, while I waited my fourth passage in the ancient capital to visit this place, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, it’s impossible for me not to tell you that this temple is clearly worth the effort.
Visiting the Koke-dera (or Saiho-ji) is not an insurmountable ordeal, but this requires some advance preparation and organization to get a proper appointment. Because since 1977, to protect its moss, Koke-dera is only available by reservation (such as Katsura villa) by postal mail. I insist that it is impossible to book by phone or Internet / e-mail.
You’ll have to send a handwritten letter with the name of the group leader, the number of people, as well as the planned day of your visit (better choose a day in the middle of your stay in Kyoto, in case the desired date is not available). You can write in English, even if Japanese is obviously preferable. It is suggested to post your letter in advance, the sooner the better, ideally several weeks prior to your visit. Send your mail with a stamped return envelope to the following address:
56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 615-8286
Another tip: arrive on time on the day of appointment! Do not be late, even by five minutes, because it’s very likely that the temple doors will be closed, reducing the chances of visiting Koke-dera to none, at least for the current trip Japan. Once inside, you’ll have to pay the entrance fees (¥3,000 per person in cash) then the tour will start with quite a peculiar ceremony.
Before you can enjoy the incredible outdoor area, visitors are asked to participate in a Buddhist ceremony in which monks recite a prayer. Meanwhile, you’ll have to copy the calligraphy of a sutra (written teachings of Buddha) which consists entirely of japanese kanji characters. Do not be afraid if you don’t speak Japanese, simply draw the prefilled characters. At the end of the page, it’s requested for each visitor to write a personal prayer on the document. Again, don’t worry, Westerners can write it in their own language.
This ceremonial ritual is extremely important to dive into the atmosphere of Koke-dera, and yet it is often shipped by poorly disciplined foreign visitors. My advice: stick to the ambient calm and the prohibition to take pictures, admire the seriousness of your Japanese neighbors who seem to almost be taking a JLPT test, and take your time. By coming out after an hour or so, all visitors will already be at the end of their visit, and the sublime Zen garden will grant you an almost private tour!
I would like to emphasize on the extremely pure and beautifully preserved garden, the well-organized nature which offers a delightful and calm stroll. The beautiful scenery of the moss temple will remind you some of the most beautiful scenery of Miyazaki movies, especially Princess Mononoke.
In my opinion, the Koke-dera is a must for any trip to Kyoto.