Saihō-ji (西芳寺) is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple in Matsuo, Nishikyō Ward, Kyoto, Japan. The temple, which is famed for its moss garden, is commonly referred to as "Koke-dera" (苔寺), meaning "moss temple", while the formal name is "Kōinzan Saihō-ji" (洪隠山西芳寺). The temple, primarily constructed to honor Amitābha, was first founded by Gyōki and was later restored by Musō Soseki. In 1994, Saihō-ji was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto". Over 120 types of moss are present in the two-tiered garden, resembling a beautiful green carpet with many subtle shades.
According to temple legend, Saihō-ji was constructed during the Nara period by Gyōki, on the location of one of Prince Shōtoku's former retreats. The temple first operated as a Hossō temple dedicated to Amitabha, and was known as "Saihō-ji" (西方寺), a homophone of the current name. The name was selected because Amitabha is the primary buddha of Western Paradise, known in Japanese as "Saihō Jōdo" (西方浄土). Legend states that such famous Japanese monks as Kūkai and Hōnen later served as the chief priests of the temple. Although the veracity of these legends is questionable, it is believed that such a predecessor to the current temple did, in fact, exist.
Over time, the temple fell into disrepair, and in 1339, the chief priest of the nearby Matsunoo Shrine, Fujiwara Chikahide, summoned the famous Japanese gardener Musō Soseki to help him revive Saihō-ji as a Zen temple. At this time, Musō decided to change the temple's name, to reflect its new Zen orientation. The temple became "Saihō-ji" (西芳寺), the name being selected not only because it was a homophone of the original name, but also because the kanji were used in phrases related to Bodhidharma: "Bodhidharma came from the West" (祖師西来, soshi seirai) and "Bodhidharma's teachings shall spread and come to bear fruit like a five-petaled flower" (五葉聯芳, goyō renpō). Saihō-ji was destroyed by fire during the Ōnin War, and twice ravaged by floods during the Edo period, but has since been rebuilt.
The moss for which the temple is known was not part of Musō's original design. According to French historian François Berthier, the garden's "islands" were "carpeted with white sand" in the fourteenth century. The moss came much later, of its own accord during the Meiji era (1868–1912), when the monastery lacked sufficient funds for upkeep.
The famous moss garden of Saihō-ji is situated in the eastern temple grounds. Located in a grove, the garden is arranged as a circular promenade centered on Golden Pond (黄金池, ōgonchi). The pond is shaped like the Chinese character for "heart" or "mind" (心, kokoro) and contains three small islands: Asahi Island (朝日島), Yūhi Island (夕日島), and Kiri Island (霧島). The area around the pond is said to be covered with more than 120 varieties of moss, believed to have started growing after the flooding of the temple grounds in the Edo Period.
The eastern temple grounds also contains the main temple hall, the study, and a three-storied pagoda.
The northern temple grounds contains a Zen rock garden, and a temple hall known as Shitō-an (指東庵). The arrangement of stones in the rock garden is said to be demonstrative of Musō's creative genius.
The gardens of Saihō-ji are collectively considered to be both a historical landmark and a "special place of scenic beauty" in Japan.
Other significant items within the temple grounds include a stone monument engraved with a Kyoshi Takahama haiku, and another stone monument, engraved with some of the writings of Jirō Osaragi. A portrait of Musō Soseki is considered to be an important cultural property.
Until 1977, Saihō-ji was open to the general public on a walk-up basis, as with other temples. At present, while it is open to the public, a number requirement limits the number of visitors. It is said that these regulations were put into place to protect the delicate moss from the hordes of tourists that plagued the temple before 1977.
The best time to visit is either during the East Asian rainy season (in Kyoto, early June to mid-July), when the rains make the moss particularly lush, or in late autumn, when the turning leaves contrast with the moss.
Much of the content of this article comes from the equivalent Japanese-language article, accessed on July 1, 2006.