Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Kyoto's Saihoji Temple and its 700 year old Moss garden ( Koko-dera )

I travel with a strict balance of planning ahead and winging it.
Truth be told I prefer spontaneity and I just like to walk and see what I find.
But Kyoto is a formal city and it doesn't really like drop in visits.

On the way to our destination that was on the outskirts of Kyoto, we passed by promising signs that the garden might live up to expectations.

Isn't this main door to a private residence magazine worthy?
We were so lucky to be in Kyoto as the leaves were turning.  
The leaves were earlier by a few weeks than normal which was fortuitous and there are two high seasons in Kyoto: one is the cherry blossom season and the other is the changing of the autumn leaves.
We were headed to the Zen Buddhist temple called Saiho-ji that has a garden that that was originally founded in 749 as a villa for one of the ancient royal family members but was turned into the present function in 1339.
The entrance had the usual austerity of a Zen temple.
It was also very strict in other ways.
You had to get pre-approval to gain entry.

One has to write a handwritten letter to the temple with your personal details but also an enclosed addressed stamped postcard for them to then send you their invite.

No last minute planning there.
So my friend in Australia had to send the letter as the UK don't do self-addressed postage for overseas letters.

The price is the equivalent to US $30 for one person.
It isn't cheap compared to even the private gardens in the UK hence this temple makes millions of dollars a year in admission fees.
Then just when you think I have walked in and now I can just be on my way and take some snaps,
you are reminded that you have to join / sit through a Buddhist chanting ritual.
One waits in a holding hall and then are ushered in the main temple to sit on the tatami floor. with a desk with information, 
the prayer book in Japanese, and a calligraphy pen with a bamboo stick where you can write a wish.

I can read the two basic Japanese alphabets and 
wasn't reading the Chinese characters but they were all reading so fast that I just had to hum the rest.
The ritual was done by two Buddhist monks and 
took about twenty minutes.

The theory behind this is that they want you in a right frame of mind before you enter the garden.
In Japan, most temples will have a natural spring water source where you can also clean your hands and rinse your mouth.
While it seems obvious the garden in Asia and 
particularly in Japan is a form of meditation.
The cultivation and maintenance of a garden is a reminder and symbolic of the change of seasons, the cycle of growth, death and renewal, the impermanent nature of things.
Even the curvature of a path and the rocks laid out was considered in meaning and function by all the monks who created and maintained this garden.
( Straight paths are avoided as feng shui principles dictate that evil spirits travel in straight lines.)
The revered master gardener was also a monk called 
Muso Suseki.
He was part of the aristocracy and the most revered Zen teacher and created not only this garden but numerous other famous and acclaimed gardens.
Many of the features and the placements of the tea house and rills are still in place according to the Muso's plans from the 1300's.
Interestingly, the new name of the Moss temple is a new name.
 It was due to the moss having grown in the gardens during the turbulent and huge change during the Meiji period.
This was the era Japan was slowly shedding the shogunate system and opening its borders.

The garden now contains about 120 varieties of moss.

But this garden has had other guardians such as the famous monk called Honen who was another pivotal and influential figure in Japanese Buddhism.
I know that many tourists to Kyoto don't make it here because most don't realize the protocol involved in visiting one of the most famous sites in the city.
So this is just a sharing post for you to see the gardens.
I have posted the pictures in the order as I took them as the path is one way and it encircles the grounds.
I will do another garden post only because even though I myself am not a huge gardener, Kyoto has the most amazing gardens.
Those with green thumbs or with historical interest of garden design among the readers will know that 
Kyoto is to gardens what Rome is to churches.
This garden is important in its historic significance and for being one of the oldest continuously used gardens in the world.
It also shows how to create a feature of something that was originally not wanted but now is famous for moss.
In fact so much so that there are many Japanese gardens that copy this style.
While I hope you also get the chance to go, 
I hope it inspired some gardeners and others to try and use something negative and turn it into a positive feature.
I couldn't get an answer to when the rowboat was installed as the lake isn't really so vast it needs a boat that size but it was more of a meditative and contemplative feature.
The feature made sense once I walked into the tea house that was just opposite.
When one sits to sip tea...
one looks out onto the rounded window that frames the view of the rowboat.
What was so interesting for a novice in garden design like me was that the garden was a guided one way path.
It was not an open garden with multiple routes 
but a gentle guide and walk without having to stop and 
get distracted by a choice of whether to go right of left.
But it didn't feel forced and even no go areas was just a stick covering the path.
Everywhere you looked was a perfect shot and and composed still.
The moss was maintained beautifully and there were gardeners that would sweep the moss to reveal the green color and the velvet texture that made it look like a luxurious carpet.
This was also a garden that inspired many western gardeners particularly French ones.
While I would have like to sit and reflect in one of the temples and tea houses, the time allowed in the garden after the ritual was an hour and a half.
But I hope you enjoy the pictures and am sorry that
 I couldn't better capture the mood.

But I did capture the koi fish wiggling away and 
leaving a zig zag in its wake.

Well that is the exit door and marks the end of the tour.
  Hope you enjoyed it and felt some of the peace and calm that many of us did when exiting.


  1. You did capture the mood ..it looks absolutely sublime. Apparently the Japanese concept of ma means that space is a positive force not just a "space" between 2 things and taken into account when planning gardens, houses etc

    I've always wanted some form of a Japanese garden though not really being a gardener it would not remain in its correct form I think

  2. Being an urban jungle creature I could do with a bit more of this moss garden's tranquil beauty. Even the pics reduce tension.

  3. Replies
    1. Funny bc birds didn't really feature and while it could escape me my friend didn't remark about any either

  4. Thank you so much for taking us on this tour! Japanese gardens just knock me out!!!

  5. I love it! Of course gardening has slacked off with the coming season but this deserves a Pin so I can return early next year. I liked no decision to go right or left...puts the mind at ease.

  6. Amazing! All of that moss reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert's latest novel, the signature of all things. Thanks for sharing !

  7. Wow, words fail me - you are so lucky you had the chance to visit this garden!!! Thank you so much for sharing photos of your visit. It is just breathtaking. There is a Japanese garden in Vancouver, and I had never taken serious note of it before, but it also has a one-way path.

  8. Lovely post.

    Makes jealous travel face (in a Zen way of course).

  9. A bit like a labyrinth in terms of the contemplation path but far more beautiful. Thank you for the joy and serenity of this garden walk.

  10. Naomi those pictures are outstanding! thank you for the virtual tour. Wonderful place!

  11. Wonderful pictures. I'd love to go to Japan and see the amazing gardens one day. It was so influential in Western garden design in the late 19thC after Japan opened up to the West. I know that my Dad's garden has Japanese overtones and plants because of that - the original owner travelled extensively through Japan and brought back seeds for the trees in the garden. He also created the Japanese bridge and screens.
    Also like the boat as meditative device - modern relaxation technique is to imagine a scene like that in your head - fascinating to see that that is a very old concept. Loved the pictures, it does look very tranquil.

  12. Stunningly beautiful and serene Naomi. Thank you. Best wishes, Pammie

  13. I like that you have to write to them and await a reply.
    Such a contrast to the instant whip of modern life.
    Stunning location!

  14. I could do with a bit of that tranquillity right now. Such a cool concept that you have to write a letter to gain entry; I guess that weans out all the 'trash' xx

  15. Do you have to find someone who can write to them in Japanese script? Or will they respond to other languages and in those languages, eg English? Pammie

    1. You can write to them in English and I think most languages but response will be in English and Japanese so the invite can be read by admissions people. But it needs to be done a few weeks ahead unless you're already in japan it's about a week but then you need to have an address you know for sure. We got ours posted to our hotel. But the prayer isn't subtitled and not translated to a pinyin that you csn chant along. Next trip you have to go Pammie!

  16. Thank you for this, just reading and looking at the pictures calmed me.

  17. Adore that mossy carpet! makes me want to do something mossy somewhere in the garden. I love their spare and elegant way of placing things.
    Also your philosophy for travel - plan a bit and then wing it - leaves you open to all the possibilities and those are often the best moments!

  18. These gardens are truly swoon worthy, Naomi. This looks like a place I need to visit. I travel in much the same way you do. Must have some plans but lots of time for exploring. Love all the green!

  19. So beautiful. Definitely on the bucket list.

  20. Absolutely go-worthy! When you apply for admission, do you have to specify a date and time or do you have to go by their availability/calendar/timing? Count me in on your next trip to wherever you are going! :-) Emily


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