When people think of Western Japan, their imagination runs wild. As towering spires of ancient temples and rich history clash with the modernities of our current era, throngs of tourists from all over the world travel to the country to immerse in search of the “real” culture. While the big names of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe fill the schedule of most vacationers, there is a little something special for those who choose to not always follow the crowd. A place that harbors all the charms of the major cities above, but remains on the sidelines, rewarding those who seek to venture outside of the tourist guide. This place is called Uji, a land seemingly untouched by time. With a countless number of places you can go and experiences you can have in the city, here are a few to get you started.
1. Take a walk across the famous Uji Bridge
Photo by sdkfz183 [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia CommonsThe minute you walk out of the station, you’ll be able to see Uji-Bashi (Uji Bridge) in the distance. Known as one of the most ancient bridges in Japan, it is said that a monk from nearby Nara Prefecture built the structure in 646. After being reconstructed in 1996, the bridge features a special design crafted from Japanese cypress. As you walk across, you’ll often see swarms of tourists taking snapshots of themselves on the bridge, as well as photos of the river below. During October, a local priest conducts the Meisui Kumiage no Gi, which is a celebration of drawing water from the river to make a special tea commemorating the culture of the city. Linking the two opposite ends of the city, Uji-Bashi is a significant piece of architecture that has lasted the test of time.
2. Pay homage to Murasaki Shikibu
As you cross Uji-Bashi and head into the main section of town, don’t forget to stop by the statue of Murasaki Shikibu. Regarded as one of the icons of Japanese classical literature, Murasaki Shikibu wrote a portion of her story, The Tale of Genji, based in Uji. In the city, you’ll also be able to visit her museum on the other side of town, dedicated to honor her esteemed ability with the pen, as well as showcase various scenes and illustrations from her stories. Tourists and locals alike often like to pay homage to the author who helped put Japanese literature at the forefront of global consciousness. Don’t forget to do the same!
3. Visit Byodo-in
Known as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Byodo-in has its own special charm that is hard to forget. Built during the Heian period, the temple is shared by both the Jodo-shu and Tendai sects of Buddhism. As the surrounding structures and gardens add to the sense of serenity of the temple, the most popular building is the Phoenix Hall, which is also featured on the 10-yen coin. Prepare to be amazed by the intricacies of the temple, as well as the atmospheric feel of tranquility and beauty. Byodo-in is a place you don’t want to miss.
4. Gorge on Matcha Foodstuffs
Not only is Uji famous for its traditional architecture, but also for its matcha (green tea leaves finely ground into a soft powder). As you venture around the city, you’ll see various shops, stores, and restaurants showcasing their high-quality fare, looking to entice customers with aromas of freshly roasted tea. From matcha-based snacks to more traditional meals, you can find all sorts of provisions to accommodate your culinary needs. The Japanese cuisine is especially delightful, as the warm sensations of the ramen broth compliment the addition of matcha powder, providing a mouthwatering experience unlike any other.
The gyoza is also mixed with tea powder, making these little morsels explode with a unique flavor. If you’re looking to cool down after a hearty meal, be sure to make some room for ice cream. Although you can find matcha ice cream throughout the country, the Uji flavors are quite different from what you’d find at your local convenience store. Make sure to bring a healthy appetite to accommodate you on your Uji journey!
5. Visit an Old Tea House
One of the most interesting aspects of the city is the large concentration of tea houses in the main square. As you step inside one of the many establishments for a taste of tradition and nostalgia, prepared to be amazed at the sight and smells of the old wood, combined with the roasting of various tea leaves. Although Uji is mostly known for its matcha, you can find different drink options that are just as refreshing and flavorful as the more popular selections. With the combination of drinking tea in an age-old establishment while gazing upon the historical architecture with traditional Japanese stringed instruments in background, it is as if you went back in time to when philosophies of Sen no Rikyu ruled the day. Feel free to cherish that moment while you enjoy a beverage that signifies the importance of never forgetting the past. Lastly, as you leave the city, don’t forget to pick up some local tea from one of the vending machines for your ride back home. It will make the trip that much better.
While not getting as much attention as from other cities in the Kansai area, Uji has a little bit of something for everyone. If you want to get a taste of what made Japan unique compared to the rest of the world, Uji would be a great place to start looking.