Uji – near Kyoto – came to my attention on a box of green tea bags in my kitchen. Not surprising given that Uji is a premier tea growing area in Japan, though I didn’t know that then. I was accessing boxes of sencha teabags from my local Asian store in Western Australia. I knew it was Japanese grown tea, but I didn’t focus on where in Japan even though the UJI name was on the packaging.
Then I met a young woman from Uji on a working holiday in WA. She extolled the virtues of her home town, pointing out that it was only a 20 minute rail trip from KYOTO and well worth a visit. She seemed almost distressed at the idea that I had visited KYOTO several times, and failed to visit UJI.
She explained that UJI has the famous Byōdō-in Temple, including the Phoenix Hall. I’d never heard of it. “But it’s engraved on Japan’s ten yen coin and the temple is a national treasure in Japan,” she said. I went home and checked my small collection of yen, left over from a previous trip to Japan. Ah, good .. a ten yen coin! And there indeed was Uji’s Phoenix Hall topped with golden phoenix.
I felt foolish that I knew so little about Uji – popular with Japanese tourists, but largely unheralded amongst foreign visitors.
So I researched UJI for my 2019 JAPAN visit, and my train from KYOTO to explore famous NARA even made a brief Station stop there. But I was short of time – there is a lot to see in Nara – and it wasn’t until NOVEMBER 2022 that I finally got off the train and walked through the small Uji JR station to explore.
Two train companies service UJI and both have their own stations. I arrived on a Japan Railways train from Kyoto, using my JR pass. I understand the fare for the 20 minute ride is only about $A3. So this is a cheap day trip from Kyoto. Cheap, but very rewarding.
Big tip: As Uji is so close to KYOTO, there is no need to go too early. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast first. Peak morning time can see trains packed with workers and schoolchildren. I recall we went around 9am.
On arrival, we easily located the local tourist office at Uji JR station. There were an array of brochures or maps along its walls, but none in English. But, when we enquired at the main counter, we were given some English pamphlets, along with useful advice from an english speaking attendant. We were glad we got in the queue for the counter staff.
We crossed from the Station, passing the first street to a second – a Main Street lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s a short walk down the Main Street to the river, but it took us a long time as we explored and enjoyed the lovely, interesting shops en route – many aimed at visiting tourists.
Japan had only just reopened for foreign tourists travelling by themselves last November, and we saw none on this day. There were tourists, but they seemed mostly Japanese and possibly some from other Asian countries. We appeared to be the only western visitors.
As it was approaching mid morning when we arrived in UJI, we found a nice looking coffee shop along the Main Street for a coffee break. Japanese are coffee connoisseurs, by the way, even in a famous green tea town!
We also sampled some local green tea when ladies at a speciality shop selling Uji produced tea keenly beckoned us in. There were no other customers, so we felt we couldn’t pass them by. They quickly brought us cups of green tea to sample. Sadly, they couldn’t speak english and I wasn’t sure if I could bring back tea into Australia. I didn’t know how to explain our dilemma, so we left without a purchase. I felt awful about that as they had shown us wonderful hospitality.
When we reached the river, we turned right into Byodo-in Omotesando, a shopping and restaurant street the runs parallel to the river along to the Byōdō-in Temple. A short walk, though it can take a while if you are exploring as you go.
And then there it was – the magnificent Temple with the Phoenix Hall – surrounded by a moat and exquisite gardens, including wisteria trees, their branches winding its way along a huge pergola. The wisteria weren’t in flower in November, but you could see they would be spectacular in bloom.
There is a fee to go into the temple grounds, plus once you enter there is an extra fee if you want to go into the Phoenix Hall. Entry is only allowed on a guided group tour. You are put into in a group with other visitors.
When we arrived there was only a few people in the queue waiting to enter the Hall. We decided to leave it to later. Mistake! We should have paid and lined up then because later there were big queues.
I had read that photographs in the interior of the Hall cannot be taken, the guide’s talk is only in Japanese, and you will be standing in a narrow space with all the other tourists. We were still avoiding crowds where we could because of Covid, so we admired from outside and didn’t go in.
This did not take away our enjoyment of the Byōdō-in Temple. It is a beautiful place, one of the nicest temples we’ve seen in Japan. And the grounds are breathtakingly beautiful.
Byōdō-in Temple has an interesting history. The stuff they write books and make movies about. It was originally built in 998 in the Heian period as a rural villa of high-ranking courtier. The villa eventually ended up in the ownership of another Heian noble who decided to build a temple on the villa’s grounds. From his residence he could see the Phoenix Hall (built 1053) across the lotus pond.
Many other temple buildings were built on the grounds, but along with the villa they were lost over the centuries, many in the Temple’s tragic history of bloody battles between warring clans.
One of the most famous was in 1180, when a long-standing conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans over control of the Imperial court erupted in a full-scale war at the Battle of Uji. The Minamoto clan, with a weaker force, fled to the temple with their favoured claimant to the throne. Minamoto no Yorimasa, a famous warrior and poet of the time, set up defences at the temple, and urged the Prince to escape. The Prince was captured later in the day and executed. The sons of Minamoto no Yorimasa sacrificed their lives trying to hold the enemy at bay at the nearby river bridge.
Inevitably, the stronger force endured, and in the face of defeat Minamoto no Yorimasa committed ritual suicide within the temple grounds before he could be captured. Supposedly, his aide cut off his head, weighed it down with a stone and put it into the Uji River so enemies could not get it. His grave can be seen within the temple grounds today in a sub-temple building you will come across as you follow the main path around the grounds. Was the head retrieved? What’s actually in the grave? I’m unsure, but it’s a nice grave monument and nicely kept.
There are some more modern smaller temples that you can see, along with a modern museum in the grounds. The museum is very worthwhile seeing. It features an impressive collection from the former treasure house, which deteriorated. Entry is included in the main entry price. They have a website in English.
After visiting the Temple, we walked back to the main Uji bridge to take a good look at the river. In summer, you can cruise along in traditional boats, but being late autumn, they didn’t appear to be operating. We could see other handsome bridges not far away. Had my crook knee been up to it, we would have done a circular walk to it, going alongside one side of the river, and returning on the other side.
Not far from the temple as you walk back to Uji’s Main Street, you’ll see a high end traditional sweets shop on a corner. We sampled some, and bought a small box of sweets to take back to our hotel in Kyoto. OISHI. DELICIOUS!
We ambled back up the Main Street, stopping for lunch at a Japanese curry cafe. Cheap and delicious! I went for a chicken katsu curry – think chicken snitzel in a curry sauce.
All the dishes were under $10 Australian, and came with small salads and other accompaniments. Free iced water was also offered. The temple, of course, was the highlight of the day – but being a foodie, all the delicious treats offered in Uji makes this town unforgettable.
After our meal, we moved onto to an ice cream shop for desert and another coffee! I love the way ice creams are served in little holders n shops in Japan!
On reflection, I think as tourism regains strength in Japan, I would move quickly to the Temple on arrival in Uji before crowds build up, and explore Uji’s shops, cafes and other attractions later.
And there are plenty of other attractions. Other significant temples, shrines. and museums. There is even one dedicated to Murasaki Shikibu, the woman who produced the world’s first novel. The Tale of Genji museum is about 8 minutes walk from Uji Station on the Keihan Uji Line, or 15 minutes walk from Uji Station on the JR Nara Line I didn’t get to see the Museum. One for my visit next time!
I did see, however, a statue of Murasaki Shikibu in a prominent position near the main Uji river bridge. How could I have not heard of her! My education was being enriched in Uji.
Murasaki Shikibu was a poet and lady-in-waiting in the Imperial court. Early in the 11th century she wrote about the romantic adventures of a “shining prince” in her ‘Tale of Genji’. Vaguely, I knew of the book. But I didn’t know it was written by a woman. Many chapters are set in Uji, so you can discover sites around the town that are linked to the story.
For green tea lovers, you will find the oldest tea shop in Japan is in Uji. Tsuen has been in business since 1160 and serves green tea parfaits and rice dumplings. It has a prime location by the river, so you should easily locate it.
Uji is a place well worth visiting – probably more than once! Ensure you have good shoes for walking. This is a great place to explore on foot.
Despite the tales of vicious battles, the images of the temple you shared alone bestow a sense of serenity and calm. I can only imagine how one feels in person. It’s almost like meditation?
May I ask when you visited Uji? It seems like most folks are wearing masks, so I was wondering if that’s the common thing to do or if it’s more pandemic-related?
November 2022. Quite recent. We were among the first independent travellers in after they reopened their borders to tourists. Pandemic related measures were still in force. They are being relaxed now, but people still choose to mask up. Even before the pandemic there was a lot of mask wearing in Japan. As tourists, we didn’t mind it as we managed to get through our trip without catching covid. UJI is a lovely place to visit and easy to access.
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I’m glad you were able to stay healthy in the midst of it all!
Another question, if I may: you mentioned a few hiccups in communication. How difficult was it to get by in Uji without speaking Japanese? I saw a few signs in your photos in English, are folks likely to understand an English-speaker?
Not a lot of difficulties these days on the major tourist routes and cities. Things have improved a lot since I first went to Japan just over 20 years ago. Google translator is a game changer. We can now run the phone over menus, signs etc that are in Japanese to see what they say in english. We can also have a conversation using the translator. Generally, in main centres you have little difficulty. You can have minor problems if you go off the beaten tourist track, but they are not insurmountable. I have about 50 words I have learnt – the usual – thankyou, hello, good morning, excuse me, etc. Signs etc are in english on major trains, railway stations etc. More and more restaurants, cafes have english menus. I find it easier travelling in Japan than in Europe language wise. It is also a lot cheaper travelling in Japan than in Europe or Australia! Not Bali prices, but still very reasonable for independent travellers. Cheaper to do it yourself than to do a tour. Very safe place, super clean, lots of tourist assistance available. If you are thinking of going, then I can share a lot of other info and tips with you.
You’ll find eight stories so far on my blog from my latest trip to Japan last November, plus numerous others from my previous trips there. Your comment has prompted me to think of doing a story on how easy it is to travel in Japan without the language.
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I’m looking forward to it, and thanks for the pointers.