Monday, August 22, 2016

Favorite Places and Spaces: Uji

What comes to mind when you hear Kyoto? Historical buildings and temples, green tea, and geisha? How about noisy crowds and long, long lines for sightseeing buses?

I think it was last year that Kyoto beat Paris as the top travel destination in the world, and thanks to the Japanese government's robust efforts, both foreign and domestic tourism to Kyoto has exploded in recent years. Only a few years ago in 2010 I could go to Arashiyama on a weekday afternoon and walk through the bamboo forest slowly and quietly, and take photos with no people in them. There is no way to do that now, unless perhaps one visits very very early in the morning.

However, this is not to say that all of Kyoto has been taken over by crowds and policemen shouting in megaphones reminding you it's very crowded and to keep moving. In fact it seems to me that tourists are shuttled to certain areas, leaving others still very peaceful and relaxing.

One of my favorites of those places is Uji. 


Uji is situated on the southern outskirts of Kyoto City, on the Uji River (elsewhere known as the familiar Yodogawa), easily accessed from JR or Kintetsu train lines for a few hundred yen (less than $5). All of its major sites are within walking distance of the stations and each other. Here are some good ones:

Byodo-in Temple 

The face of Uji and "heads" on the 10-yen coin, this temple was originally founded in 1052 AD. It has of course been damaged, burned, and repaired several times. An old proverb says, "If you doubt the existence of heaven visit Byodo-in". One time when I went there at the beginning of August we were treated to a free music and dance performance for the Tanabata holiday season. It was really special.

Uji River
There is something so relaxing and romantic about this river. I enjoy walking along its banks, over its bridges (there is an oblong island in the middle where the cormorants are housed), and even on one occasion paddling my feet in its coolness, right before we spotted a nutria, river-dwelling rodent of unusual size! Be careful however as other than the small stretch between the shore and the island, the river's current is very swift and dangerous and not suitable for swimming in. You can however take a little boat tour up and down the stretch of river, and even see traditional cormorant fishing on summer nights. 

Tsuen's matcha parfait
Uji has been a major source of high-quality green tea for centuries. Right near the main bridge and the Kintetsu Uji station is Tsuen, a shop that boasts it has been in operation selling its brand of tea for a thousand years. A friend and I were impressed to see it included in an Edo-period (1600s) scroll painting of the area on display at the Genji museum, looking strikingly similar to the way it does today. It may be the oldest extant shop in the world. Matcha parfaits and other green tea refreshments are quite affordable. It is not by any means the only tea shop in the area; Omotesando street which leads to Byodo-in is lined with similar shops, and there are also many traditional tea-houses where you can participate in the tea ceremony, such as the Taihoan Tea House.

The Tale of Genji Museum
Arguably one of the oldest novels in the world, the last chapters of The Tale of Genji take place in Uji. The museum is a gorgeous building that incorporates traditional Japanese and modern architecture beautifully, and brings to life some scenes from the Tale and the Heian period lives of the imperial court. There is not much English inside the museum, and my knowledge of The Tale of Genji is shaky (I read it in English years ago, and had forgotten most of the numerous characters and their intrigues) but the museum offers a nice glimpse into another world. The sleepy, romantic little town of Uji, juxtaposed with its swift-flowing river, and The Tale of Genji--a story of the "floating world" and the impermanence of nature, beauty, and love--come together in the imagination until the line between past and present, fact and fiction blurs. Admittedly it was good for me that I went there with a friend who was more knowledgeable of the novel, the time period, and archaic kanji than I was!

Mimurotoji Temple 

Uphill and separated from the major spots by a 15-minute walk or so is this lovely temple; it gets crowded at the end of June when its famed hydrangeas bloom, but you can expect a quiet, relaxing wander through its gardens all the rest of the year. The two times I have been there on weekdays we had it to ourselves. Lotuses bloom until the middle of August, and in its gardens you can see the dramatic effect of "borrowed scenery" as its cultivated areas blend seamlessly with the surrounding forests and hills. Beginning in May or so you can hear nightingales calling from the forest. Heaven!

All these places and many others here and there in the area make Uji just lovely for walking around and exploring slowly, soaking up the atmosphere of old Kyoto. Most tourists seem to leave it out of their itineraries, but in my opinion, if you are traveling to Kyoto and want to skip the crowds and get a taste (literally!) of the city and its history, I highly recommend a day in Uji.

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