The magic of Koke-dera, the temple of moss [Kyoto]

Article updated on May 20, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau

The monk is wearing a dark kimono and tabi, the split-toe socks. He opens his arms to invite us on a small path surrounded by an infinity of shades of green.

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Three wooden bridges covered in moss in an oasis of greenery at the temple of Kokedera, Kyoto, Japan.

The variety of mosses on the ground, trees and rocks is baffling, each with its own specific shape, hue and texture. In the serene Japanese garden, a few monks respectfully sweep the leaves from the precious moss with a twig broom and the greatest care. On this green carpet, an occasional small pink flower contrasts delicately, enhancing the harmony rather than breaking it. Bright red carps evolve in the central piece of water blurring the reflection of its small wooden bridges. The pond is shaped as the Japanese character “kokoro”: (heart) to symbolise the inner nature of man. Three tea ceremony houses are scattered on the grounds, the most ancient dating back to the 14th century. The greyish tone of bamboos adds the last touch to that painting on the East side of the garden of Koke-dera, literally: the Temple of Moss.

By its formal name Koinzan Saihoji, Koke-dera is a very special Zen Buddhist temple as its precious treasures need to be protected: 120 different types of mosses are grown in this stunning 35,000-square-metre Japanese garden that was designed in 1339 by the priest of the Rinzai Zen school and famous gardener Muso Soseki (1275-1351). This is however long after the creation of the temple by the Buddhist priest Gyōki (668-749) that is dated back to the 8th century at the request of Emperor Shōmu during the Nara Period (710-794). Muso Soseki did not plant the moss. During its long history, Koinzan Saihoji was destroyed by fire, rebuilt, and flooded. The moss appeared after the flood, replacing the white sand of Muso.

The secret temple is difficult to visit. An application must be mailed to the temple. Then, it has to be approved by the monks who send their answer back by post only and in Japanese. The appointment is made: one is expected on time, with the monks’ answer and the exact change to pay for the entrance at the foot of the western mountains of Kyoto.

Leaving our shoes outside, we quietly walk barefoot into the temple where we enter a room. As the few other Japanese-only visitors, we sit on our knees on the tatami mat in front of an individual low writing desk. Three monks enter the room and after burning an incense stick and bowing deep to the altar, they start chanting a prayer. One of the monks beats the rhythm on a sculpted wooden drum regularly, another one strikes a big and thick bronze bowl to give a resonating ring tone, while they all sing their prayer in a unison of their deep voices.

After the prayer, we are handed a thin wooden board the size of page keeper to write our wish on one side and our name and address on the other, after copying a Buddhist scripture (sutra). We bend slightly to the right to use the calligraphy brush and some thin black ink contained in a stone recipient. Once done, we donate it close to the altar, bowing and dropping a coin in. The monks will gather them all and pray for our wishes to come true.

We follow the monk leading us to the garden: it is now time to uncover the jewel of the temple. This wish has come true… We slowly walk on the alleyways surrounded by soft and thick moss. Sometimes, it is interrupted by a hand-made narrow irrigation channel leading to the pond. Sometimes, it grows along the trunk of a cedar. Often, it merges with intertwined roots of maple trees.

Beyond being the most beautiful temple in Kyoto, the 1,300-year long history of Koinzan Saihoji temple has profoundly imprinted Buddhist temples as it was the model for others such as Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), some of the most famous and visited ones. Still a functioning temple housing Zen monks, the serenity of Koke-dera makes it the most magic place of Kyoto, and the difficulty of visiting it contributes to it.

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One thought on “The magic of Koke-dera, the temple of moss [Kyoto]

  1. Pingback: Temple hopping in Kyoto: our top chart | Best regards from far,

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