Just a short train ride south of Kyoto is Uji, a city known far and wide for its green tea producing farms. Shops along the street sell local tea products to drink or take home and all sorts of green tea flavored sweets and foods, making for a great place to shop for souvenirs. With several famous temples and shrines in the area, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, Uji is popular for those looking to enjoy the famous green tea alongside temples surrounded by
rolling hills and a picturesque river.
Originally a high ranking courtier’s rural villa, Byōdō-in was built in the Heian Period and converted into a temple in 1052 by a member of the influential Fujiwara clan, now managed by both the Tendai and Pure Land sects of Buddhism. Located in the green tea-producing city of Uji just southeast of Kyoto, the temple feels slightly removed from city life, surrounded by a pond and garden. The architect intended to convey a vision of the Buddhist Pure Land, and succeeded in making Byōdō-in a strikingly beautiful temple in the process. The most famous building in the complex is the Phoenix Hall, which is placed in front of a reflective pond and topped with golden statues of phoenixes. Inside the hall is a statue of Amida Buddha, the main object of worship and the being said to be the one who offers passage to the Pure Land upon death to those who call out his name. The garden surrounding the hall as well as other buildings on the property make for a leisurely stroll, and visitors can also view a museum with temple treasures and art for a small fee.
A temple famous for its garden offerings, Mimuroto-ji is a nature lover’s delight in the south-eastern city of Uji with a 1,200 year history. No matter the season something always seems to be in full bloom at this hillside temple, with cherry blossoms in the spring, azaleas, hydrangeas, and lotus in the summer, and colorful fall leaves in autumn. After entering the temple’s vermilion gate a short stroll takes you up to the offices, main hall, bell tower, and pagoda. Depending on the time of year the appearance can be remarkably different at Mimuroto-ji, especially in the summer season when potted lotuses bloom just in front of the main hall. After checking out the building and saying a prayer you can wander over to the pagoda or the viewing platform that offers a lovely view of the expansive gardens. The gardens are the true attraction, with row upon row of azalea bushes, hundreds of hydrangeas in different colors and shapes, and a quaint little café and gazebo to rest and enjoy your surroundings in.
Shopping Street (Shōtengai)
Some areas are famous for their local shopping streets, and Uji makes sure to capitalize on their most famous product by selling all sorts of green tea related products. On a leisurely stroll between the train station and the famous temples in the area you can enjoy passing by and popping in to various shops. Along the way you can sample all sorts of foods, most of which offer a green tea flavored option, whether it be ice cream, sweets, or soba buckwheat noodles. Traditional tea shops also offer the actual drink for sale to consume right then or take home for later. Other shops specializing in gifts and other traditional Japanese items can be found as well, making it a great place to shop for souvenirs on your way to your next sightseeing spot!
The head temple of the Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, this temple in Uji has a distinctly Ming Chinese influence that sets it apart from many other temples in the area. Founded in 1661, the head priests of this temple were Chinese for thirteen generations. Following Ming architectural style, the layout is sprawling and spacious, with grand paths lined with pines throughout the complex and gilded lanterns hanging from the covered walkways. An image of the familiar Hotei “Laughing Buddha” in gold can be found in the first worship hall, and the second hall contains the main altar and various interesting wooden statues of Buddhist saints. The kaipan, or fish board, near the main hall is a popular symbol of this temple, and still in use today. If you wait, you may be lucky enough to spot a monk come out and use the board to announce the time. Not only a beautiful spot to relax and look around, Manpuku-ji has a variety of cultural experiences available for those interested, such as zazen meditation, sutra copying, and Chinese fucha ryōri cuisine.
Spanning the length of the Uji River, the current aptly named Uji Bridge was constructed in 1996. A bridge has spanned the river at that spot since 646, with a stone inscription commemorating the completion of the bridge remaining as the oldest example of a Japanese stone inscription. From the pedestrian walkway across the bridge you can get a lovely view of the nearby mountains as well as the small island in the middle of the river that sports a thirteen-storied stone pagoda. Teahouses and traditional buildings line the riverside, and once night begins to fall boats take to the water for cormorant fishing, an activity visitors can observe from boats.
Despite the fact that the Ujigami Shrine is often overlooked by travelers to Uji who flock in hordes to Byōdō-in Temple and shopping streets filled with green tea treats, Ujigami Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site believed to possibly be the oldest extant Shinto shrine in the country. Located just a few minutes’ walk away from Byōdō-in over the Uji River and behind the newer Uji Shrine, Ujigami Shrine is an example of the most classic of Shinto architecture tucked into a small, nature-filled alcove against the rolling hills of southern Kyoto. Though the grounds aren’t large, they provide an interesting contrast to the shrine architecture visitors may have already grown accustomed to, with the main hall contained in a large wooden “cage” of sorts. If you’re in the area it’s worth stopping by for the oldest remaining shrine, the lush greenery and water, and the many cute rabbit-shaped charms!