Three kilometres northwest of Katsura Rikyū, in a narrow, tree-filled valley, you’ll find the voluptuous and tranquil moss gardens of Saihō-ji (西芳寺), also known as Koke-dera (苔寺; the “Moss Temple”). If you’ve got time to spare after the major sights, this temple is well worth visiting, though you have to make an application. All visitors are required to attend a short Zen service during which you’ll chant a sutra, trace the sutra’s characters in sumi-e ink and finally write your name, address and “wish” before placing the paper in front of the altar. After that you’re free to explore the garden at your leisure.
Like Kōryū-ji, the temple apparently started life in the seventh century as another of Prince Shōtoku’s villas. Soon after, Jōdo Buddhists adopted the site for one of their “paradise gardens”, after which the gifted Zen monk, Musō Kokushi, was invited to take over the temple in 1338. The present layout dates mostly from his time, though the lakeside pavilion – the inspiration for Kinkaku-ji – and nearly all Saihō-ji’s other buildings burnt down during the Ōnin Wars (1467–77). In fact, given the temple’s history of fire, flooding and periods of neglect, it seems unlikely that today’s garden bears much resemblance to Musō’s. Saihō-ji was in complete ruins by the eighteenth century and some sources even attribute the famous mosses to accident, arguing that they spread naturally as the garden reverted to damp, shady woodland.
Whatever their origin, the swathes of soft, dappled moss – some 120 varieties in all – are a magical sight, especially after the rains of May and June, when the greens take on an extra intensity.