Known to locals as ‘Kokedera’—the ‘Moss Temple’—Saiho-ji Temple is home to lush moss gardens, considered among the most beautiful in Japan. Laid out in the 14th century, the zen meditation gardens are a verdant wonderland, where mossy banks lead to fish-filled ponds and gurgling brooks run through idyllic bamboo groves.
Visiting Saiho-ji Temple is by guided tour only and reservations must be made by hand-written letter at least a week in advance; booking a tour can take care of this for you. It’s an immersive experience, starting with a sutra writing and chanting ceremony led by one of the temple’s Buddhist monks. Afterwards, set out to explore the gardens, following the stone-slab walkways around the serene moss-blanketed landscapes. Learn about the 120 different types of moss that can be found in the gardens and the unique landscaping, which is inspired by Zen principles and was a pioneer in Japanese garden design.
Things to know before you go
- Saiho-ji Temple is an ideal destination for nature lovers, photographers, and adventurous travelers looking to discover some of Kyoto’s less-visited temples.
- Advance booking is essential; there is a required donation to visit the temple and gardens. Tours take around an hour and are open to children over the age of 12.
- The temple is not wheelchair accessible.
How to get there
Saiho-ji Temple is located in western Kyoto. The closest train station is Matsuo station (Hankyu Arashiyama Line), a 20-minute walk from the temple. It is more convenient to ride the Kyoto bus (Line 73) from Kyoto Station (about a 1-hour journey)—hop off at Kokedera, Suzumushi-dera, a 3-minute walk to the temple.
When to get there
The temple is open daily from July to September, and afternoons only in other months. An autumn visit reveals the gardens at their most enchanting, framed by a rainbow of fall foliage. To protect the fragile ecosystems, access to the garden is prohibited in winter (Jan to March); instead winter visitors can enjoy an extended temple visit.
Kyoto’s Most Beautiful Temple Gardens
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Saiho-ji Temple is one of over 1500 temples in Kyoto, many of which are famed for their picturesque gardens. Ponder the mysterious Zen sand garden at Ryoan-ji Temple; stroll around the sand and moss gardens of Ginkaku-ji Temple, with its Mount Fuji-inspired dome of sand; admire the fall foliage as you explore the lakes and bridges of Daigoji Temple; or visit Heian Jingu Shrine Garden in spring to wander beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms.
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