Uji is an unexpected present. I did not expect to be surprised. More so, I did not expect to fall in love.
It was just meant to be a day out, to kill time. We had one extra day that we did not have plans for thanks to SQ pulling the rug beneath us when they shaved flights off the Osaka-Kansai route. You can’t blame them when you see the planes more than half empty making that 7-hour journey to and fro. But then that left us with one extra day on our hands with nowhere specific to go.
We toyed with the idea of renting a car driving to Shikoku, to the Iya Valley, but gave that up when it became apparent that that was just impractical in the time we had. We debated about going back to Kyoto or to Kobe for the day, but both did not seem to appeal.
Then right down to the last minute, at the railway station, we looked at the map and saw Uji. All we knew of Uji was that it had a famous temple called Byodo-in and it was known for green tea. It was some place new and we thought we’d have enough to see to just kill half a day or so before wandering back to Osaka.
We were wrong. And it was good to be wrong.
Uji stood at the terminus station of the Keihan line en route to Kyoto, with a change of trains. Exiting the station and crossing the road put us right at the famous Uji bridge – where battles were fought, where the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi once stopped for a tea ceremony, drawing water directly from the river beneath.
Once across the river, I saw the statue of Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the Tale of Genji, the first novel in the world and it clicked home – in fact the last chapters of the massive tome were set in Uji. From here we followed a pedestrian street flanked by many tea shops and antique shops. Tea-lovers would be in heaven. Tea samples, baskets of tea leaves, green tea ice-cream, green tea cakes, green tea mochi, young tea leaves, old tea leaves and all configurations in between. How could I leave without getting any tea?
At the same time, an old brass statue of a playful dog and a ball caught our eye in an antique shop. So it came home with us, wrapped with careful consideration in an old pine box by the shop owner, an elderly lady, who gave us a discount without us asking or bargaining for one. It was very heavy but KH valiantly carried it everywhere for the rest of the afternoon.
It’s easy to find your way around because everything was so well sign-posted. A little further down the road is the famous Byodo-in. Just outside the gates, to our surprise, wisteria, in fat showy purple and white bunches hung low from bamboo pergolas. The spring breeze was lightly perfumed with its delicate sweet scent. In fact, it was that which caught my attention first. I thought wisteria usually bloomed in May, but I guess these were early. And we were lucky to catch this.
Byodo-in is a World Heritage Site originally built in 998 by the wealthy Fujiwara family, it was converted into a temple in 1053. The crown jewel of its beauty is the Amida Hall or Phoenix Hall, which seems to float on the strikingly emerald green pond it sits on.
At the height of its glory, the Phoenix Hall would have glowed with colour – the brightest emeralds, vermillion, cobalt, and the 52 boddhisattvas or angels perched on the walls and the beams clad in gold. Semi-precious stones added accent and glitter.
There is a computer simulation in the museum nearby that shows what the Byodo-in would have looked like. I suppose back in the day, being young and new, it would have seemed right to be gaily dressed, colourful and a mite over-dressed to the point of being garish.
But I prefer the Phoenix Hall as it is today – worn, faded and comfortable in its skin. It has lasted through earthquakes, fire and war and it seems to exude a dignified, contented air today, a peaceful haven. It has aged gracefully. I hope they never try those fancy restorations to bring things “back to their glory”. That would be like putting a grande dame in 80s Madonna garb.
One last musing before we leave Byodo-in. In 1992, almost 20 years ago, on our honeymoon in Hawaii, we visited another Byodo-in on Oahu. This was a modern scaled replica. I guess it is then fitting that 20 years later, to celebrate our days together, we would visit the real thing.
I think Uji is highly under-rated as a tourist destination. I guess with people moving in the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara circuit, it’s easy for Uji to fly under the radar. Selfishly, I am glad for this. Because this how I like it, unspoiled, uncrowded, a slice of life.
One day, I would love to come back here just to spend a couple of days. Apart from Byodo-in, there isn’t any other really big-name sight. But that’s just what is so great about it. It’s a quiet little old town, with a pretty river, green leafy river banks, bridges, lots of tea-houses, some old temples – great for spending time in quiet contemplation, lots of long solitary walks with breaks for tea. What’s there not to like?