Dreamlike and ethereal – a hazy, airy world of art and literature, the Heian Period has always been viewed through rose-coloured glasses as a similarly rose-coloured world of peace and tranquillity. However, in truth, the Heian Period was a time overlaid with uncertainties. People lived with a hint of anxiety, a cold uneasiness that seeped into the warmth of their everyday lives. In fear of the then predicted End of the World, the people of Uji and the prominent figures of that time built shrines in hopes of either preventing the world’s end or for them to be able to enter heaven when it does happen.
The city that embodies this atmosphere is Uji, an old, sleepy town in Kyoto.
Incredibly scenic, humble and down-to-earth, yet breathtaking. The town gives an air of longing nostalgia – a poignant awareness of transience and wistfulness at the passing of time and the living, a term known in Japan as mono no aware (物の哀れ). Uji – with the Uji River and the surrounding mountains – evokes this very feeling of gentle acceptance, the fleeting nature of life the people of the Heian Period lived within.
Out of Keihan-Uji Station, on the bank of the Uji River, in-between quiet households and teashops, stands the torii gates to the equally quiet Ujigami Shrine. Settled atop a small hill, its stone steps leads to an old shrine – calming and almost other-worldly, an ease of heart painted onto its age-old walls.
Acknowledged as the oldest existing shrine in Japan, the structure dates back to the 14th century. The Engishiki Jinmyouchou, records the existence of both Uji Shrine and Ujigami Shrine, two shrines built in close quarters of each other within the same time frame and with the same architectural structure. Ujigami Shrine, along with Uji Shrine, were built to honour Prince Uji no Wakiiratsuko and Emperor Nintoku.
Behind Ujigami Shrine lies a stretch of road lined with trees, leaves and branches – a roof that casts a collage of shadows down the footpath. Marked with concrete spheres at the foot, this road brings you to Mt. Daikichi. Ahead is a short 20 minute hike up a winding path across the woods. The peak, about 130 metres high, gives you a sight that overlooks the city – a view of the city under your footsteps.
While a day trip is a sight to behold in itself, a night hike – equipped with a light from a lantern or your own phone – is where Mt. Daikichi holds itself special. Over the fence railings, behind the silhouetted foliage, gives you a view of kaleidoscopic city lights. Bright colours ever moving, reflected across the surface of the Uji River with every breath of the city at night.
It may not be very grand, perhaps even easily missed in the thrill of wanting excitement out of a trip in a foreign country. However, there is something to be said in watching a city from afar, admiring life as it moves, from a quiet corner of the world. Uji is a city of quiet contemplatives, a city that carries itself with the soul of the Japanese of the Heian Period. The very essence of Olden Japan.
If one seeks to understand mono no aware, then please, take a moment to stroll along the Uji River. Take a deep breath. Appreciate the town’s natural state of being as it is.