Saiho-ji Temple (西芳寺)

Saiho-ji Temple is a Rinzai Sect temple located in Matsuo, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto City. It is commonly referred to as Koke-dera. The honorific mountain prefix is Koin-zan. The temple was founded by Gyoki, later restored by Muso Soseki and its principal image is Amida Nyorai.
It is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the '{Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto}.'

Origin and History

According to temple legend, the location of Saiho-ji Temple (西芳寺) was formerly the site of Prince Shotoku's villa, which Nara period monk Gyoki converted to a Hosso Sect temple known as 'Saiho-ji Temple (西方寺)' (a homophone of the current name) dedicated to the principal image Amida Nyorai. Legend has it that famous Japanese monks such as Kukai and Honen later served as chief priests at the temple. Although these legends cannot be taken at face value, it is believed that such a predecessor to the current temple genuinely did exist.

Over time, the temple fell into disrepair, and in 1339, the chief priest of the nearby Matsuno-taisha Shrine, FUJIWARA no Chikahide, summoned renowned monk and famous garden designer Muso Soseki (Muso Kokushi) to help him revive Saiho-ji as a Zen temple. The original temple name 'Saiho-ji Temple (西方寺)' (meaning Western Temple) was suitable for a temple that enshrined an image of Amida Nyorai, primary Buddha of the Western Paradise but Muso Soseki changed this to 'Saiho-ji Temple (西芳寺)' (changing the 'ho' character). The new name 'Saiho (西芳)' was selected from the kanji used in two phrases related to early Zen monk Bodhidharma: 'Soshi seirai (祖師西来)' (Bodhidharma came from the West) and 'Goyo rempo (五葉聯芳)' (Bodhidharma's teachings shall spread and come to bear fruit like a five-petaled flower).

Saiho-ji Temple was destroyed by fire during the Onin War (1467-1477). It was also twice ravaged by floods during the Edo Period. It is believed that the ruined original dry garden became covered in moss at the end of the Edo period. A possible main cause is the adjacent ravine through which a river runs.

It was originally the case that Saiho-ji Temple was open to the general public but this was stopped in 1977 and currently visitors are only admitted after making an application via return postcard. Visitors do not simply tour or observe the temple but must participate in religious services such as the transcribing of sutras.


The eastern temple grounds include the moss garden centered around Ogon-chi (Golden Pond), the main hall (Sairai-do), the study and a three-storied pagoda housing sutras. The garden itself contains three tea houses Shonan-tei (important cultural property), Shoan-do and Tanhoku-tei. The northern temple grounds contain a dry landscape garden in which the arrangement of stones in the rock garden and a Kaisan-do (temple where the statue of founder priest is placed) known as Shito-an.

Other significant objects within the temple grounds include a slab engraved with a Kyoshi TAKAHAMA haiku and a stone monument engraved with the writings of Jiro OSARAGI.

Main Hall (Sairai-do): Constructed in 1969 and enshrines the principal image of Amida Nyorai. The paintings on the sliding doors are the work of Insho DOMOTO.

Three-storied pagoda housing sutras: A three-storied pagoda erected in 1978 and used to store copies of sutras written by Rinzai adherents. The pagoda is devoted to the principal image Bhaisajyaguru.

Shonan-tei (Important Cultural Property): The tea house was originally constructed during the time of Muso Soseki but subsequently destroyed and said to have been later restored by SEN no Rikyu's second son SEN no Shoan. Has a wooden board balcony. The structure has a persimmon bark roof and is arranged in an L-shape with a broad veranda facing the pond. It is a bright, open teahouse and the alcove and guest seats of the 4 and 3/4-tatami mat main room with a Kato-mado (window with a special curvilinear top part) do not have Nijiriguchi (small door which leads into a tea ceremony hut) at the center but only a Kininguchi (an entrance made especially for noblemen or other dignitaries so that they can enter a tea ceremony room without bending) with a broad veranda running along the north from which the garden of woods and fountains can be viewed. Tomomi IWAKURA was famously sheltered here towards the end of the Edo Period.

Shoan-do: Contains a wooden image of SEN no Shoan. Constructed in 1920.

Tanhoku-tei: The tea house donated to the temple in 1928 by potter Zoroku MASHIMIZU. Buildings designated Special Places of Scenic Beauty, including 'Shonan-tei' and 'Tanhoku-tei,' were inspired by phrases from the Chinese Zen text "Biyanlu" (Blue Cliff Record).

Cultural Properties

Saiho-ji Temple Garden (Special Place of Scenic Beauty, Special Historic Site): Created by Muso Soseki and comprised of the upper dry landscape garden and the lower pond-centered garden. In the northern temple grounds remains a dry landscape garden in which the arrangement of stones in the rock garden is said to show traces of how it looked in the time of Muso Soseki.

Today Saiho-ji Temple Garden is best known for its moss garden centered around the Ogon-chi (Golden Pond), which is nestled in a grove of trees.

The garden is divided into the pond area at the base of the hill and Zen temple garden that utilizes the slope of the hill with a path leading up the hillside, atop which stands a rest stop named Shukuen-tei. The garden displays a multi-level design concept with the summit offering a view of the Katsura-gawa River and the two-storied reliquary hall near the pond overlooking the garden.

The pond has pavilions, is surrounded on 3 sides by flowers and trees pruned into two steps, and contains the three small islands Asahi Island, Yuhi Island and Kiri Island on which white sand has been spread and pine trees grow. The area around the pond is said to be covered with more than 100 varieties of moss, which are believed to have started growing not at the time of Muso Soseki but in the late Edo Period.

In addition to the two-storied reliquary hall, the pond area also includes Jojaku-an, Shonan-tei, Tanhoku-tei, Morikiyo-ryo, Togetsukyo Bridge and the Godosen tomb. It could be said that the garden incorporates a lot of architecture relative to its size, but on crossing the Togetsukyo Bridge with its pavilion, one will step atop a long whale that makes it look as though one is floating in the sea. Atop the stone staircase through Kojokan gate sits a Zen hall known as Shito-an with an large stones on the hillside that have been arranged to symbolize a waterfall.

Color on silk portrait of Muso Soseki (Important Cultural Property)

[Original Japanese]