Pitstop in Uji, City of The Tale of Genji

On the second Sunday we were in Japan, we decided to spend the day hiking in the tea-covered hills of Wazuka. I only had a vague idea of how long that would take so we decided that after the hike, we’ll take the train and either continue on to Nara, or go to the city of Uji, which is on the way back to Kyoto. Hiking in midday during summer took longer than expected so to Uji we went.

Prior to the trip, I learned three things Uji was famous for: the world-famous Uji green tea; as one of the settings for novel The Tale of Genji; and the Byodo-in Temple’s Phoenix Hall, which is the image found on the 10 yen coin.

Upon arriving at Nara Line’s Uji station, a sign marking the South exit says, “The Town of The Tale of Genji.”

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We arrived late afternoon and weren’t sure if we’d make it to Byodo-in before closing time so we followed Google’s suggested walking route as fast as we could. There was a bit of miscommunication with the guard at the entrance, but the way I understood it, the temple was open but the Phoenix Hall was already closed. I decided I’d rather see the riverside while it was light out so we headed there instead.

For those interested in that sort of thing, there’s a Starbucks right outside Byodo-in that tries to blend in with the Japanese landscape, rock garden and all.

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In the middle of Uji River are two islands connected to each other and to both east and west banks of the river by bridges. It’s now a park and it was nice to stroll and take pictures of the river from there. There is a 13-story stone pagoda near one end.

There is also a cage of cormorant birds. Uji has a tradition of cormorant fishing, usually by women. It’s now mostly done for the sake of tourism. At night during the summer months, people can watch from boat tours as women release trained cormorant birds so they can catch fish. The throat of the birds have a snare which prevents them from swallowing big fish, which the fisherwomen then take.

It sounds a bit gruesome but also interesting. We didn’t really plan on watching it though and I didn’t want to stay out of Kyoto too late.

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On one of the bridges, I saw some lanterns depicting scenes from The Tale of Genji. The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century by an imperial lady-in-waiting known as Murasaki Shikibu, is sometimes considered the world’s first novel. The final 10 chapters are set in Uji. I had to report on this novel during my one and only semester in grad school so the place has some sentimental value for me.

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There is actually a Tale of Genji Museum in Uji, although I read somewhere that it’s not very interesting for people not familiar with the story, which would be my boyfriend, so we skipped it. It also might have been closed by the time we got there anyway.

We crossed the bridge to get back to the riverbank closest to Byodo-in and enjoyed the walk by the river.

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As it was Sunday, there were a few people casting fishing rods near Uji Bridge with their families. It was a pretty idyllic rural scene.

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We headed back to the main commercial street, Omotesando, to check out the remaining souvenir shops still open for business that day. Uji is well-known for green tea. From tea leaves to tea bags, green tea-flavored soft-serve ice cream and dango, the shops carry everything you can think of to do with tea and more. There are also traditional sweets taken as you drink tea. Your head will swim at the many options.

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It was almost sunset by the time we reached Uji Bridge but I, at least, found her before it got too dark. The statue of Lady Murasaki herself.

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I had always meant to taste green tea-flavored soba noodles before the day was done and we found the perfect restaurant just next to Lady Murasaki’s statue. The restaurant was on the third floor and had a view of the river. It was traditional style, where you take off your shoes and you sit in either low Japanese-style seats or cushions.

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After the meal, it was time for us to head back to our base in Kyoto. From my research before the trip, I read that Uji is really more of a destination for local tourists than foreigners. True enough, we only saw maybe five foreigners the entire time, probably dropping by after a day in Nara.

It was Sunday when we were there, but things sure got quiet there pretty fast after the sun had set, even in the streets closest to the station. To us, it was a nice, relaxing way to cap our journey into tea country.

 

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