A half-day trip to Uji (from Kyoto)
It has a beautiful, old temple, the Byodo-in. But also a famous bridge and excellent green tea. Why you should plan a half-day trip to Uji from Kyoto
Every time I go to Kyoto I am surprised by new, amazing things. I had to wait for my seventh trip to Japan to see Uji, just twenty minutes south of my beloved Kyoto, along the Jr Nara line. Its most famous temple, Byodo-in, dates back to the eleventh century and it has undergone careful restoration works between 2012 and 2014.
I visited Uji in a truly rewarding half day, last January. I have almost forgot that the weather was bad, with intermittent rain and a cold wind, almost violent along the river cutting the town in two parts. In my memory it’s all perfect, just like it is in the pictures.
The Byodo-in temple in Uji
It’s extremely elegant, yet imposing. The temple seems to float on the lake’s water on which is reflected: a duplication of its symmetry. It’s an ethereal, almost ideal, unreal vision. Maybe it’s just some kind of coincidence, but the beautiful garden is meant to represent the paradise of the Buddhist ‘Pure Land’ of the Jodo sect. I admit that I have no idea of what it means.
Although I have done my homework and read about it, I still have a very superficial grasp of the various ramifications of Japanese Buddhism. And like me is a big share of the people coming here. But ‘Pure land’ sounds perfect, and seems ideal to describe this landscape. Beauty isn’t the only reason why the temple is such an important National treasure, portrayed on the 10 yen coins and included in Unesco World Heritage.
The Phoenix Hall, which hosts a large statue of Amida Buddha, is one of the very few intact wooden buildings from the Heian era (it was built in 1053 a.d.). The paint and the gold were restored, but the wooden structure is the same that was here at the time of the Tale of Genji. In Japan it’s rare to be in front of something so ancient in its original form and this makes it even more moving. Give this place the time it deserves.
The Phoenix Hall requires an extra ticket and is visited in small guided groups (only in Japanese at the time of my visit). I was told it can happen to wait up to an hour sometimes. It’s worth it: the hall is beautiful, it’s a place of deep tranquillity. And the large three metres tall Buddha surrounded by the Bodhisattva is unforgettable.
Other sights in Uji
Close to the temple there are the museum and the less interesting Shinto Ujigami Jinja (on the other side of the bridge). The bridge is very famous. It was built fort the first time in 646. Since that time it has been reconstructed over and over. But the bridge also appears in painting, and poems. Today is not as beautiful as it might have been in the past, a strange mix of concrete, steel and wood. But it’s still fascinating.
The green tea of Uji
Uji is famous not only for its temple but also for its ancient tradition of high quality green tea. Along the river there are many places where it can be savoured, while the street that leads to the Byodo-in temple (called Omote-sando, just like the famous shopping street in Tokyo) is ideal for tea and souvenir shopping. Many restaurants serve green tea soba or tea flavoured sweets and ice creams. A local institution is the teahouse Taihoan, just next to the Tourist information centre. Here visitors can participate in a traditional tea ceremony too.
Mor information for a half-day trip to Uji
- Train. From Kyoto it takes between 20 and 30 minutes by train to get to Uji JR, depending on the type of train. The line is the one for Nara, and the cost 240 yen. The JR pass is valid on this journey. More on Uji transportation is on the always reliable Japan Guide.
- The temple. Byodo-in can be reached on foot from Uji JR station. The temple is normally open from 9.30 am to 4 pm. The entrance fee is 600 yen, 300 for the Phoenix Hall.
- More. A Trip to Uji from Inside Kyoto provides excellent information on the area and its sights.