I forgot to mention one other Japanese author whose work I’ve read: The Lady Murasaki Shikibu. I think I didn’t include her in my post about Japanese literature because I don’t feel that I’ve really read her work yet. I’ve read a manga version of part of the story, and an abridged version of the first book in the Tale of Genji (源氏物語 – げんじものがたり – Genji Monogatari), but I haven’t yet read the entire novel.
I’m reminded of her today because I’m going to write about Uji (宇治). We were inspired to go there on our honeymoon because part of the Tale of Genji is set there (the part I haven’t yet read!).
Uji is a short train ride from Kyoto (京都) on the JR Nara line. We took a local train without any problem – no need to book tickets, and if you’re travelling with a JR Pass all you need to do is show your pass to the guard at the gate and he or she will wave you through. On arrival, there is a Tourist Information office at the station where you can pick up a map of the area and leaflets for the main sights. We wanted to see Byōdōin (平等院) with its Phoenix Hall, and the Uji City tea house Taihoan where we hoped to experience the tea ceremony for less money than tea houses in Kyoto charge.
We walked down towards the Uji Bridge, where we encountered a statue of Lady Murasaki – as imagined by the sculptor as no images of her are known to exist.
After we’d gazed on the bridge, the river and the statue, we headed off towards Byodoin down a street full of tea vendors. Uji is famous for the high quality of its tea. It supplied the royal court when Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and the best green tea is still grown in Uji. The street smelled fabulous, as it was a hot day and all of the shops had their frontages open, allowing the scent of green tea to waft over us as we walked.
We popped into one of the larger shops to smell and feel the tea leaves, and bought a packet of genmai cha, which is a roasted tea with rice grains. We also discovered one of the best things we have ever eaten. Green tea flavoured KitKats. Unbelievably good, with the usual chocolate coating replaced by green tea flavoured white chocolate.
A little further along the street, just before the entrance to Byodoin, we discovered another of the best things we have ever eaten. Green tea ice cream, with matcha powder sprinkled on top. The colour is akin to pistachio ice cream, or mint choc chip, but the flavour is pure green tea – bitter but kind of sweet at the same time.
After we’d stuffed ourselves with sweet treats, we went into the grounds of Byodoin. The temple dates from the 10th century and was originally built as a private residence, before being converted to a Pure Land Sect temple in the 11th century by a member of the Fujiwara clan. Lady Murasaki was a member of this clan and the family feature strongly in the Tale of Genji as they were the de facto rulers of Japan in the Heian period.
We didn’t go into the Phoenix Hall as the queue for entry was pretty long. Instead, we wandered around the edge of the lake and viewed the hall from across it.
We also strolled around the back of the hall and looked at some of the sub temples. There is a really good view of the roof of the Phoenix Hall from the back. We went into the small museum, where carvings and statuary taken from the hall are on display. It was a relief to be inside the cool, dark building as the day outside was a scorcher.
Next up, we followed the map to try to find Taihoan. There is a visitor centre and café across the way from the tea house where you need to buy tickets for the tea ceremony. When we visited, the price was 500円 each, which is considerably cheaper than the prices we’d encountered in Kyoto. Once you’ve bought your ticket, you cross over a small path and enter the grounds of the tea house.
Once you’re in the garden that leads up to the tea house, it’s like being in another world. Uji isn’t such a busy place, in terms of traffic, but once in the cloistered garden, it becomes possible to imagine a world without cars and lorries and motorbikes. We were invited to sit on a bench outside the house, where we removed our shoes, until the geisha had prepared the room for us. When she came out to beckon us in, we walked up a short flight of steps and then entered the tatami room through a low doorway. The geisha invited us to kneel and placed a plate with a Japanese sweet on it in front of us. She then gestured for us to eat as she prepared the tea. The room was light and airy and decorated with a simple ikebana display and scroll in an alcove behind where the geisha was preparing the tea. I watched her as she went through the ritual cleaning and wiping of the implements, the measuring of the matcha powder, the pouring of the hot water and then the presentation of the tea to us. The tea was delicious – hot and bitter and slightly grainy. After we had drunk and admired the bowls, the geisha spoke to us in Japanese. I didn’t understand what she said and apologised. She didn’t speak much English, but managed to convey that she was very impressed with my kneeling position. I didn’t mention that I didn’t think I would be able to walk when the time came to leave the tea house, judging by the tingling in my legs!
The whole thing probably took around half an hour, but the gentleness of the ceremony and the calmness of the room made it feel as though we had been transported away from the world for hours. It was well worth the entrance fee and I would recommend it to anyone. You can be there from Kyoto within half an hour.
We emerged from the tranquility of Taihoan onto the riverbank and walked towards the river. We crossed at a point where two bridges connect a small central island with a stone pagoda on it to each of the river banks, and admired the views up the river.
This is the river where fishermen use cormorants to catch fish in the summer. There are night time displays in the summer months, but we visited too early in the year to see anyone fishing.
Across the river we found another statue depicting characters from the later part of the Tale of Genji. In the novel, Genji’s son and his friend are rivals for the love of the same woman. Unable to cope with their rivalry, and unable to choose either way, the woman decides to drown herself in the river, and so begins a legend that the cause of the river’s turbulence at the point where she drowned is the turbulence of her spirit.
Across from the statue, vermilion torii lead the way up the mountain to a shrine which also features in the book. We didn’t visit it while we were there, but instead walked further up the mountain to the Tale of Genji Museum. This is more an exploration of the historical setting for the book than an actual museum, and contains dioramas depicting what Kyoto and Uji would have looked like at the time Murasaki wrote the book. One of the dioramas is a model of Genji’s palace, with its four areas planted to represent the four seasons. Visitors walk through the exhibits wearing headphones and listening to a narrative in their own language, or at least in a language they can understand. The final part of the museum is a cinema where visitors watch a video based on the ten chapters of the Tale of Genji that are set in Uji. It is an odd experience, to say the least, watching a video of a mystical quality while listening to someone narrating it through your headset. I’d describe the whole museum as a concept piece, personally. It’s an interesting idea, but not something that I would urge people to visit.
We left the museum as it was closing and made our way back towards Byodoin and the street of tea shops. We were hungry by now, so popped into a noodle restaurant where I had my favourite Kitsune Udon and R branched out with some Zaru Soba. When it arrived, we were both non-plussed, as we had never encountered it before and the noodles were cold, sitting on top of a bamboo box with some wakame, and there was a bowl of soy sauce on the side. The waitress noticed that we were staring at the dish instead of eating it, and came over to explain how it is eaten. Fortunately, R was able to report that it was delicious.
I love Uji. I can imagine living there. It struck me as the sort of place that has a life beyond its tourist status, somewhere that people actually live once all the tourists have gone home. We are definitely going back on our next trip, and I have the complete Tale of Genji on my Kindle, ready for the flight.