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).
Advance reservation process
This has to be done 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.
The visit on site
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!
We 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 our opinion, the Koke-dera is an absolute must see for any trip to Kyoto.
How to get to Saiho-ji
By bus -- Line #63, #73 or #83: Koke-dera station and 5 minute walk
By train -- Hankyu Arashiyama Line: Matsuo station and 20 minute walk (identify the 西芳寺 signs)
By taxi -- Address: 〒615-8286 京都市西京区松尾神ケ谷町５６ ("Kyoto-shi, Matsuo Jingatani-cho, Nishikyo-ku")
Location unreachable with the JR Pass
Get there with a rental car
Minimum ¥3,000 donation (~US$ 27.20) per person, to pay upon entering in cash (preferably in an envelope)
Get your Japanese Yens free of charge
According to the appointment provided by the temple
How long / when to visit
Allow two hours on site. Perfect to combine with Arashiyama on the same day.
Ideal season: late autumn
苔寺 (Koke-dera, which literally means "moss temple")