Photos by Don Pylant
Koke-dera (Moss Temple), or officially “Kōinzan Saiho-ji” was founded by Buddhist priest Gyoki in the Nara Period on the grounds of one of Prince Shotoku’s retreats, and restored by Zen Priest and well-known garden designer Muso Soseki (Muso Kokushi) in 1339 of the Kamakura period. Although it is known today as the Moss Temple because of its 120 species of moss, it was not planned this way.
Through centuries of wars, destruction, floods, reconstruction and neglect, nature finally claimed Saiho-ji, and the mosses slowly took hold, converting what was left of the garden into a beauty of nature. Today, it is a rare and quiet place set in a peaceful forest.A famous scene in Koke-dera is of the wooden boat at the shore of Chisen Kaiyu or “Circling Pond.” This pond also contains the three symbolic islands of Horai, Tsuru island, and Kame Island (Endless Happiness, Crane, and Turtle Islands). The rocks in the water are considered to be ships anchored off the coast of Paradise.
Saiho-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple located in Matsuo, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan. The temple, which is famed for its moss garden, is commonly referred to as “Koke-dera”, meaning “moss temple”, while the formal name is “Koinzan Saiho-ji” (. The temple, primarily constructed to honor Amitabha, was first founded by Gyoki and was later restored by Muso Soseki. In 1994, Saiho-ji was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”
The name was selected because Amitabha is the primary buddha of Western Paradise, known in Japanese as “Saiho Jodo”. Legend states that such famous Japanese monks as Kukai and Honen 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 Muso Soseki to help him revive Saiho-ji as a Zen temple.At this time, Muso decided to change the temple’s name, to reflect its new Zen orientation. The temple became “Saiho-ji”, 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” (soshi seirai) and “Bodhidharma’s teachings shall spread and come to bear fruit like a five-petaled flower” (goyo renpo). Saiho-ji was destroyed by fire during the ?nin War,and twice ravaged by floods during the Edo Period, but has since been rebuilt.
Ironically, the moss for which the temple is known was not part of Muso’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 (1860-1912), when the monastery lacked sufficient funds for upkeep.