Entrance into this temple complex transports you into an extraordinary sea of green: 120 varieties of moss create waves of greens and blues that eddy and swirl gently. You'll realize why Koinzan Saiho-ji is called the Moss Temple. The site was originally the villa of Prince Shotoku (572–621). During the Tempyo era (729–749) Emperor Shomu charged the priest Gyoki to create 49 temples in the central province, one of which was this temple. The original garden represented Jodo, the western paradise of Buddhism.
The temple and garden, destroyed many times by fire, lay in disrepair until 1338, when the chief priest of nearby Matsuno-jinja had a revelation here. He convinced Muso Soseki, a distinguished Zen priest of Rinzen-ji, the head temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, to convert it from the Jodo to the Zen sect. Soseki, an avid gardener, designed the temple garden on two levels surrounding a pond in the shape of the Chinese character for heart. Present-day visitors are
grateful for his efforts.
Another interesting aspect to your temple visit is the obligatory sha-kyo, writing of sutras. Before viewing the garden, you enter the temple and sit at a small, lacquered writing table where you're provided with a brush, ink, and a thin sheet of paper with Chinese characters in light gray. After rubbing your ink stick on the ink stone, dip the tip of your brush in the ink and trace over the characters. A priest explains in Japanese the temple history and the sutra you are writing. If time is limited, you don't have to write the entire sutra; when the priest has ended his explanation, simply place what you have written on a table before the altar and proceed to the garden. In order to protect the temple's delicate moss, you do need advance permission to visit the temple. The simplest ways to arrange a visit are to ask your hotel's concierge or contact the Kyoto Tourist Information Center. To reach the temple, take the Hankyu Line train from Arashiyama to Matsuo Station; buses from JR Station stop here.