Saihō-ji (西芳寺?) is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple located in Matsuo, Nishikyō Ward, Kyoto, Japan. The temple, which is famed for its moss garden, is commonly referred to as "Koke-dera" (苔寺?), meaning "moss temple", while the formal name is "Kōinzan Saihō-ji" (洪隠山西芳寺?). The temple, primarily constructed to honor Amitabha, was first founded by Gyōki and was later restored by Musō Soseki. In 1994, Saihō-ji was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto".
According to temple legend, Saihō-ji was constructed during the Nara Period by Gyōki, on the location of one of Prince Shōtoku's former retreats. The temple first operated as a Hossō temple dedicated to Amitabha, and was known as "Saihō-ji", a homophone of the current name. The name was selected because Amitabha is the primary buddha of Western Paradise, known in Japanese as "Saihō Jōdo". Legend states that such famous Japanese monks as Kūkai and Hōnen 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.
The famous moss garden of Saihō-ji is situated in the eastern temple grounds. Located in a grove, the garden is arranged as a circular promenade centered around Golden Pond (黄金池 ōgonchi?). The pond is shaped like the Chinese character for "heart" or "mind" (心 kokoro?) and contains three small islands: Asahi Island (朝日島?), Yūhi Island (夕日島?), and Kiri Island (霧島?). The area around the pond is said to be covered with more than 120 varieties of moss, believed to have started growing after the flooding of the temple grounds in the Edo Period.
Until 1977, Saihō-ji was open to admission to the general public on a walk-up basis, as with other temples. At present, while it is open to the public, a number requirements limit the number of visitors. It is said that these regulations were put into place to protect the delicate moss from the hordes of tourists that plagued the temple before 1977.
The most famous times to visit are either during the East Asian rainy season (in Kyoto, early June to mid-July), when the rains make the moss particularly lush, or in late autumn, when the turning leaves contrast with the moss.