Mr Hicks and I first went to Uji on our honeymoon, and loved it so much that we went back for a second visit at the end of March 2012.
In 2012, we were a bit more organised than we had been on our first trip, and made sure we had most of the day to wander around, see Byodoin properly, and explore parts of the city that we hadn’t had time to see first time around. After using the station stamp, we followed the sign pointing us to the Town of the Tale of Genji and headed out of the station.
Outside the station building we found the Tourist Information centre, where a helpful lady gave us a map, circled places of interest in pink highlighter and pointed us towards a big green gateway across the road, telling us to follow the signs into town.
At the traffic lights by the gateway, we spotted a pod on a pole which contained a marionette pretending to pick tea while some music played. It was so bizarre that I had to take a photograph of it, while my husband filmed it on his camera.
How we had missed this weird delight on our first visit, I will never know. As we headed into town, we spotted an array of decorated manhole covers lining the street, bearing images of fire engines.
A little bit of internet investigation later revealed that this is a bit of a thing in Japan, and we have seen plenty more covers with artistic designs on them since our first spot in Uji. According to this site, the practice started in the 1980s as a way of reducing public resistance to the new sewer systems. There are all kinds of designs, including some that celebrate local sports teams like the Hiroshima Carp!
Onwards, though, to Uji, past a late (or super early) Santa Claus in a display case outside a shop. Because what tourist destination isn’t complete without a Dude Santa wearing oven mitts?
When we reached the end of the street, we paused to visit the RAAK store, owned by a family which has been making and selling furoshiki since 1615. Photography inside the shop isn’t allowed, so here’s a picture of the history plaque outside the front door.
The family is keeping traditional fabric dyeing skills alive by reprinting traditional furoshiki and tenugui designs. We bought quite a few samples and were given free souvenir postcards as a thank you. It’s a really lovely shop and you can buy a range of products including tissue holders and spectacle cleaning cloths as well as the traditional furoshiki and tenugui. There’s also a branch in Kyoto, close to Gion.
Across the road from the shop is the Uji bridge and the statue of Lady Murasaki. I paused to pose with my literary heroine with the bridge in the background.
From here we headed down the street lined with tea sellers towards Byodoin. We were hooked in by one shop where free samples of tea varieties were on offer. Having tasted a couple, it felt rude not to go in and buy something. It helped that the tea was delicious, of course!
We came away with sencha, genmaecha, matcha, green tea chocolates and wafer cakes filled with azuki bean paste and matcha custard. Further along the street another shop was selling sencha in washi-decorated caddies which were too pretty to resist.
All tea-ed up, we headed down to Byodoin for a wander around the gardens. This visit we had enough time to visit the Phoenix Hall and the museum as well, spending a good three hours looking around and trying to dodge the sun by finding shade under the trees. The gardens are beautiful, and the views of the Phoenix Hall across the pond really stunning.
The Phoenix Hall was an interesting experience. The tour is conducted entirely in Japanese, so we spent most of it just gazing around the hall. The ticket office for the tour is just inside the garden as you come in through the main gate. There is an additional 300円 charge for the tour. The ticket you are given shows the start time of the next slot (the tours run every 20 minutes) and you are told to assemble a few minutes beforehand in a shaded arboretum close by. It was a hot day, so we decided to sit in the shade anyway. A few minutes before the tour was due to start, as if from nowhere, lots of Japanese people appeared and a queue began to form in front of the small roped off bridge that leads to one of the wings of the Hall. We joined the queue quickly, not wanting to miss the tour and have to wait for the next one!
Across the bridge is a large genkan area where we removed our shoes, and then the guide led us into the Phoenix Hall. No photography or sketching is permitted in the Phoenix Hall. As well as the ticket, we had a sheet of information in English about the Hall, telling us that, in 1052, Fujiwara Yorimichi, a high up advisor to the Emperor, converted a villa he had inherited from his father, Fujiwara Michinaga, into a temple. 1052 was thought to be the year in which Buddhism would die out and the world would enter an age of decadence. Fujiwara Yorimichi wanted to create a temple to persuade the gods to admit believers to the land of eternal bliss. The Phoenix Hall was constructed in 1053 to house the Amitabha Buddha. Originally called the Amitabha Hall, it became known as the Phoenix Hall, or hodoo, in the Edo period, because the shape of the Hall resembles a bird with outstretched wings.
The Amitabha Buddha measures around 5 metres in height and is made of cypress wood. Its creator was a revered Buddhist carver of the Heian period, Jocho, and has been a model for Buddhist statues since its creation. Around the walls of the Hall are 52 Bodhisattvas riding on clouds, some dancing, some playing instruments, all worshipping the Buddha. Some of the statues have been removed for display in the museum. The walls and doors are also painted with scenes of Amitabha and his Bodhisattvas welcoming the souls of the deceased to the land of eternal bliss. The paintings on the doors are replicas, but the wall paintings are original.
The Hall is beautiful and well worth a visit. The museum is located across the gardens from the Hall, and is partly an underground structure, to minimise its impact on the rest of the site. It is interesting enough, but I felt it became a bit repetitive after a while. Once you’ve seen a bunch of Bodhisattva statues and replicas of the Phoenix statues from the top of the Hall, you’ve pretty much got what they’re about, I’d say! There is information about how Byodoin was built and various examples of National Treasures related to the site, and entry to the museum is covered by the general admission fee to the gardens, so you might as well visit it. I’m not really selling it, here, am I?
After our time at Byodoin, we headed to the Taiho-An municipal teahouse again. This time we shared a tea ceremony with two young Japanese women. The geisha who was serving us was very chatty, and complimented me on my Japanese. When I said “ままです!”, the two other women laughed. As we ate our sweet and drank our delicious bitter tea, the geisha explained a few of the things in the room. There was a scroll in the alcove by a Chinese master that represented a pure heart. My husband was drinking from a bowl depicting a matsuri that happens in Kyoto on 20 March, while my bowl had plum blossoms on it. The water boiler on this visit was suspended from the ceiling on a chain over the fire pit. The geisha explained that this would be put away at the end of March, and the fire pit cleaned out and covered with tatami. From April, the water would be heated in the corner where the tea is brewed, which is what happened when we visited in May 2009. All of this was explained in Japanese, so I might have got some of it wrong, but I think I got the gist of it!
After our refreshing tea, we headed for Uji-jinja (宇治神社) across the river. The shrine seemed to be closed, so we only wandered around it for a short time.
The original shrine used to be bigger, but split into two separate shrines in the Meiji era, the smaller Uji-jinja and the larger Ujikami-jinja further along the hillside. The original shrine, centred on Ujikami-jinja, is believed to be the oldest surviving shrine in Japan, and is believed to have been built before 1060. We didn’t visit Ujikami-jinja, as we were getting a bit tired and wanted to catch the train back to Kyoto in time to head out for dinner.
I liked Uji-jinja, with its rabbit motif. According to legend, the deity enshrined at Ujikami-jinja was led there by a rabbit, known as the ‘Looking Back Rabbit’, or mikaeri usagi, when she became lost on the hillside.
On our stroll back along side the river to Uji Bridge and the train station, we spotted something we haven’t seen anywhere else in Japan – a vending machine specifically for Uji tea.
For some reason, we didn’t buy anything from the machine, and I can’t remember why!
Uji is still one of my favourite places to visit in Japan. If you’re in Kyoto, it’s only a 20 minute train ride down the JR Nara line, and there is plenty to see and do there, so why not give it a try and treat yourself to some delicious Uji-cha?