Saihōji (西芳寺, Saihoji), more commonly known as Koke-Dera or the Moss Temple, can be a bit of a tricky place to visit.
One of Kyoto’s celebrated UNESCO World Heritage sites, the garden apparently contains over 120 moss varieties, creating an ethereal landscape to explore. But before setting foot in the garden, visitors must copy, by hand, a Buddhist scripture. Even getting to this point isn’t straightforward- to get through the gates you need a permit which requires a written application.
To make our reservation, I used a great booking service. You can also send the letter yourself, but with a slim window that we could make our visit in, I wasn't taking any chances. Using the booking service was simple, cost around ¥2000 (about AU$35), and our permit was waiting when we arrived at our hotel. Toshi also snagged us a lunch booking at AWOMB, which was amazing.
Saihōji sits just beyond Arashiyama, and it look close to an hour on a local bus. We were met at the front gate by a monk who collected our permit. We took off our shoes, paid the entry fee of ¥3000 (about AU$35) each.
Our entrance was timed, and when we arrived there were probably around thirty people already there. Photos weren't allowed inside the temple hall, and the atmosphere was quiet. Everyone was kneeling, and quietly copying out the koan.
This wasn't a quick activity. I'd assumed I'd breeze through it pretty quickly, but it took me close to forty minutes, and it probably took my mother closer to an hour. Instead of pens, we used a reasonably delicate brush to trace over the provided characters. It was a soothing thing to do, and when it was completed, you took it to the altar. Nothing was really said, you just watched and got the gist, and it was a nice way to operate.
With the formalities complete, it was time for the garden. We were lucky to be there in autumn, and although the day was misty, this added to the scene.
We spent an hour wandering around the lake and through the grounds, before heading back down the hill and back to the bus stop. It was an experience that I'd recommend for anyone looking to get a different perspective on what can feel like a whistle-stop tour of temples. The time to focus and connect was well spent, and the garden itself was magical.