Kokedera, also known as Saihoji, also known as the Moss Temple, is one of the most spectacular places in Kyoto, Japan. It’s one of the most difficult to access UNESCO World Heritage Sites, not because of remote location, but because of a cumbersome mail-only reservation process. Finally, it has gained some recognition as being Steve Jobs favorite place in Japan.
I have to admit, the title of this post is a little clickbait-ish. The thing is, if I just titled this, “Kokedera (‘Moss Temple’) Review, Info & Tips” very few of you would feel compelled to bother reading. That’s unfortunate, as Kokedera is a beautiful and fascinating place. I figure that a little clickbait is justifiable here given the effort it took us to score reservations and how cool of a place it is. I mean, it’s not like I’m dishing gossip about the Kardashians or trying to peddle political conspiracy theories…this is for the greater good. Or something like that.
A lot has been written about how Zen Buddhism influenced Steve Jobs, and his travels to Asia as a result. Jobs’ trips to Japan and love of the country are also well-documented. During his life, Steve Jobs visited Kyoto many times, including multiple visits to Kokedera/Saihoji/Moss Temple, which is said to be his favorite place in Japan.
I guess it’s cool that Steve Jobs was a big fan of Kokedera. Upon visiting, it was easy to see why, as the Moss Temple has a wonderful aesthetic. While Kokedera’s design bears very little in common with an iPhone, it was the same minimalist and sublime quality of Kyoto’s gardens and temples that formed Jobs’ guiding aesthetic principles. So, in a way you could say that Kokedera inspired the iPhone.
But enough about Steve Jobs. Even though he’s probably why 99% of you are reading this, Saihoji should not be overshadowed by anyone (with all due respect to Mr. Jobs).
Let’s start with the reservation process. Kokedera is a temple we had wanted to do for a while, it was only a matter of timing. During our extended fall/winter stay, we did not go because we would’ve missed fall colors and gone during the ugliest time of year. We didn’t even initially plan on going during our extended spring stay, as this still wasn’t quite the ideal time.
However, after a prolonged rainy stretch, we thought maybe things would be looking good, so we decided to attempt making reservations. We followed the process set out on the official Saihoji Temple website, walking to the post office and purchasing an “ofuku hagaki” (round-trip postcard) and addressing it to the Saihoji Temple Worship Clerk.
We figured there was at least a 50/50 chance that we had screwed something up, but to our surprise and elation, the return post card arrived with our reservations 3 days later. (For those who are doing shorter trips to Japan and are staying in nicer hotels–inquire with your concierge to see if they will make these reservations for you.)
To be honest, the most exciting thing about this whole process was successfully using the mail in Japan. This felt like a huge victory (it wasn’t) and I was way prouder of it than I should’ve been. This also “alerted” the postman that there was someone living in our Airbnb unit, so we started receiving flyers from restaurants with coupons afterward. So that was cool. (Yes, apparently Japan has junk mail, too.)
Anyway, a couple of weeks later, it was time to head to Kokedera for our reservation. We took our reservation confirmation post card, presented it to the gatekeeper at the temple’s entrance, and were allowed inside. After paying the 3,000 yen entrance fee at the reception (that’s not a typo–it’s approximately 3 to 6 times as expensive as , we were directed inside to individual desks where we’d be copying sutra and wishes, and participating in Buddhist chants.
Initially, I had some trepidation, as there were two moderately-sized tour groups who had the same appointment time as us. My assumption prior to visiting was that this would be an intimate experience, which is why there’s the reservation system and very limited daily attendance.
It probably shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that tour groups would be a main demographic for Kokedera–presumably the tour guide makes reservations for everyone in the group and that service is one of the selling points of the tour.
No photos were allowed in the ritual room, but that was probably for the better as it forced/allowed me to focus on the experience, which was a great one. We’ve visited over 100 temples in Japan, and we’ve witnessed and felt some spiritual moments, but we’ve never been active participants in anything until Kokedera.
We were seated around numerous Japanese visitors, and it was easy to follow their lead in the Buddhist rituals (although it felt a bit like copying their homework). Even if they weren’t there, it’s not as if the monks come around and give you a failing grade and make you repeat the assignment.
After finishing the Buddhist rituals, we left this room and were free to explore the Moss Temple’s grounds on our own. As fulfilling as the rituals were, wandering the temple grounds was the unequivocal highlight of our visit. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this 35,000 square meters garden is registered as a Historic Sites and Places of Scenic Beauty of Japan.
My initial fear that the tour groups would diminish the experience couldn’t have been further from the truth. As tour groups are wont to do, they spent about 10 minutes taking quick photos of the loop that wrapped around Saihoji Temple’s pond, and vanished.
Not knowing how long we would have before the next group showed up, or temple staff ‘encouraged’ us to move along, I feverishly took photos, trying to capture as much of the beauty of the temple as possible while still soaking it up. Kokedera Temple’s garden is said to have over 120 different varieties of moss, and while I don’t have the credentials to differentiate types of moss, it was evident that there were multiple kinds (strains? breeds?) of moss…and a lot of it.
Here are just some of the photos I captured of Kokedera Temple:
Time ticked away, and we noticed everyone else from our group aside from one other couple was long gone. Oddly, we noticed no one had arrived behind us…and no one ever did. After about 45 minutes, I had nearly filled my camera’s memory card, so I put the camera down.
It’s not everyday you get such a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site all to yourself, so we took full advantage, and decided we’d just hang out, focusing on all of the little details and fully committing this beautiful place to memory, for as long as we could. We certainly had nothing better to do!
This whole experience rivaled my first time visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine late at night, with no one else around. We absolutely love serene experiences like this, and seek out hidden gems throughout Kyoto–but we never expected to be alone at Kokedera during the middle of the day.
After a couple of hours, the previously light rain became a downpour, which “asked us to leave.” We went back into reception to thank the staff and, unprompted, someone walked us to the front under an umbrella. (Ah, Japanese omotenashi!)
Overall, Kokedera is an amazing place and we had an incredible experience. The vibrant moss was incredibly impressive during our spring visit, so I can only imagine how stunning it must look during the rainy summer season. With that said, a big part of why we loved Kokedera so much was because we lingered, and for the average visitor to Kyoto with limited time, that’s probably not possible. Heck, getting reservations in the first place is probably not practical for most visitors to Japan. If you are able to get them, we highly recommend visiting Kokedera. Steve Jobs was right: this is one of the best places in Kyoto.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited the Moss Temple? What did you think of the experience? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? We structured this post in more of a ‘report’ style than our typical Kyoto planning posts since it seems unlikely anyone reading will visit Kokedera, but if you would like to and have any questions about the reservation process or experience, post them in the comments and we’ll follow-up with more info!