Two of Uji's historic monuments, Byōdō-in Buddhist temple and Ujigami Shinto Shrine, have been inscribed as World Heritage sites as part of "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)".
Uji is one of the oldest cities in Japan. Located between the two ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, its roots reach almost as deep into Japanese history as its those of its two famous neighbors. Uji was the scene of many famous ancient stories, including the final chapters of The Tale of Genji. Author Alex Kerr extols its virtues in his book Lost Japan, contrasting Uji favorably with Kyoto as a (rare) example of a historic Japanese city whose modern development has not disrupted its classical beauty. There are stores that have been open for hundreds of years, and several important temples lay within its borders. The city has also been celebrated for its tea for almost a thousand years. During cherry blossom season, the bridge that spans the Uji river makes for a breathtaking walk.
Most of the sights are a short walk from JR Uji station - or, on the other side of the river, Keihan Uji station. There is a small tourist information center outside JR Uji station that can provide English maps. There's also a tourist information center next to the Taihō-an Tea House, just east of Byōdō-in. It's possible to sketch out an itinerary covering all of the major sights in a day, but an unplanned stroll along either side of the Uji River is likely to be just as rewarding.
Since Uji is a place full of tradition, there are many small temples to be found on both sides of the river. There are excellent explanatory displays in both English and Japanese in front of most of the major and minor sights.
- 1 Byōdō-in Temple (平等院). Open daily 8:30AM-5:30PM Mar-Nov, 9AM-4:30PM Dec-Feb. The Byōdō-in was built by Fujiwara Yorimichi, the Chief Adviser to the Emperor, in 1053. It was originally a rural villa owned by his father. Yorimichi built the temple in response to the prevalent fear that a dark age was about to dawn, and Buddhism would soon disappear. The main statue of the Phoenix Hall (鳳凰堂 Hōō-dō) represents the Buddha Amida (Amitabha); many people turned to it for refuge from the present and future, and this gave rise to the Pure Land Faith movement of Buddhism. Battles and fires took their toll on Byōdō-in over several hundred years, but a fire during the Edo period proved devastating. Only the Hōō-dō survived intact, protected by a pond. For a quick preview of what you'll see, check your pockets: the Hōō-dō is the temple on the ¥10 coin. The entrance fee also covers the temple's museum, which contains a variety of historical artifacts from the temple. The video and displays are all translated into English, so foreign visitors can easily appreciate the museum artifacts. If you choose to enter to the Phoenix Hall, it costs extra, and you can only enter as a tour (aka: you can't just walk in and out on your own). The tours run every 20 minutes and are limited to 50 people. No photos are allowed inside the Hall, and the tour is only in Japanese, although a written English transcript is provided. Inside, you will see the Buddha statue up close. Don't forget to look at the artwork behind you and on the side walls. An interesting fact that you won't hear on the tour is that in the early 20th century, the Byōdō-in was actually used by many local homeless as a temporary home. They tell visitors that all of the fading just happened over time, but you'll notice the artwork is completely gone on the bottom. This is because the homeless who lived here often wrote graffiti on the walls, so the original artwork was lost, even after the homeless were forced out and restoration was attempted. If you want to see the interior of the Hōō-dō, arrive well in advance of the last tour (4:10PM). Byōdō-in is a World Heritage site. Entrance to the temple grounds and museum is ¥600. Those who wish to enter the Phoenix Hall must pay an additional ¥300.
- 2 Ujigami Shrine (宇治上神社) (Located just to the left of Uji Shrine). This modest little shrine is another one of Uji's historic monuments recognized as a World Heritage site. It's said to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. Entrance is free.
- 3 Uji Shrine (宇治神社, uji-jinja). This shrine is located right next to Ujigami Shrine, this shrine was built to consul the soul of Prince Uji no Wakiiratsuko, who committed suicide in the Uji River. Entrance is free.
- 4 The Tale of Genji Museum (三重県総合博物館, mieken sōgō hakubutsuka), 45-26 Uji, Higashiuchi, ☎ . Open from 9AM - 5PM. Located across the river from Byōdō-in, near Ujigami Shrine and the Keihan Uji station. The latter third of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji took place in Uji, and there are statues sprinkled throughout the city to commemorate that. It all reaches a crescendo at the Tale of Genji Museum. There are English audio guides available to use for a self-guided tour to help you better understand the exhibits, as well as the video. Those familiar with the story will probably appreciate the museum, and perhaps the city itself much better. Admission is ¥500 / ¥250 for students.
- 5 Kōshō-ji Temple (興聖寺). A Zen temple that features a long, justly-famous tree-covered approach from the river. It's a lovely walk in the autumn. Kosho-ji is a working temple, so while visitors can walk the grounds, the temple buildings themselves are frequently in use. Keep quiet while you're there; zen chants hang in the air in the late afternoon.
- 6 Mimuroto-ji Temple (三室戸寺). One of the settings of the Tale of Genji, as well as the 10th temple along the Saigoku 33 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage Route. This temple will be of high interest to those who love flowers and gardens. Around the temple, lotus flowers have been planted in pots. Within the entire temple complex however, there are thousands of hydrangea, rhododendron, and azaleas all over the mountainside, and there are paths throughout the garden, so you can enjoy the flowers as you walk among them. The best time to see the flowers are from mid-May to July. Entrance is ¥500.
- 7 Mampuku-ji Temple (萬福寺). This is the head temple of the Japanese Ōbaku Zen sect, which is considered to be more Chinese than the other two sects (Rinzai and Soto). You can see the Chinese influences in the architecture, as the roofs were built in the Ming Dynasty style.
- 8 Amagasegawa Dam (天ヶ瀬ダム). Located south of the town center, it offers an outstanding view.
- Being the tea capital of Japan, Uji is the perfect place to try a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Operated by the municipal government, the Taiho-an Tea House (1-5 Uji, Togawa, Uji city, Tel. 081-774-23-3334) is just east of Byodo-in, next to the Uji River. It offers tiny, authentic tea ceremony rooms ("honseki") and a larger room ("ryureiseki") for a more relaxed atmosphere. It's open 10AM - 4PM.
- The Tea Festival takes place on the first Sunday of October. As befits a city built on tea, Uji takes its water seriously. This festival celebrates the rituals involved in drawing up the famous water. Costumes are worn, prayers of thanks are said to the luminaries of tea history, tea-tasting competitions are held, and best of all, there's free tea on offer.
- Cormorant fishing can be seen on summer nights along the Uji River. Fishermen using fire, nets and trained birds make for an exciting spectacle. During fishing season, boat tours are run on the river that will get you very close to the action. Visit the kiosk by the stone pagoda at 6pm to buy tickets (you can tell you're getting close when you see the boats lining the river). At ¥1800/person for an hour on the river (children ¥900), it's not a bad deal.
- Mt. Buttoko (仏徳山, also known as Mt. Daikichi 大吉山) (It's east of the river, a short distance from the Tale of Genji Museum and Ujigami Shrine.). Offers a decent hike with an observatory at the top for views of the area.
- Kyō pottery has been a cherished local tradition since the Muromachi period. Asashiyaki Pottery is on the east side of the river, near Kosho-ji, and Shizugawa Togei Kyoshitsu is further to the south. Visitors who are especially interested can take a taxi to Sumiyama Pottery Village (2-2 Kuda, Sumiyama, Uji City), about 6.5 km from the city center. At Sumiyama, visitors can tour factories manufacturing pottery in the Kyo and Kiyomizu traditions. Pottery design and painting classes are also available.
The Sankyū-an (三休庵) shopping street, leading from the Uji Bridge toward Byodo-in, features several old stores with the city's famous tea and pottery.
Local specialties centre around green tea (naturally) and Kyoto cuisine. Some of what you'll find in town:
- Cha-soba made by mixing green tea with regular soba noodles. There are also cha-udon restaurants.
- Green-tea flavoured ice cream, including the ubiquitous soft-serve cones.
- Green-tea flavoured dango, often served as the sweet included with matcha service.
- Kyoto cuisine, including yuba, kaiseki-ryori, etc.
Places to eat:
A map of restaurants and shops can be obtained from the tourism information centre near Byodo-in.
- Rengecha-yo is near the front gate of Byodo-in, near the end of Renge, Uji's main shopping street. No English is spoken by the staff, but English menus are available. Despite having two floors, it gets crowded in the early afternoon; as a result, the wait can be a bit long, but the food is excellent. Expect to pay ¥700 for a bowl of noodles with some tempura, ¥1500 for a filling set with a variety of noodles and tempura, and ¥3400 for a seafood blowout set.
- There is an excellent noodle shop directly across from the JR Uji station. (Look for the flashing light in front) It is both cheap and tasty. Try the "champon".
Green tea! Uji produces the most famous (and the most expensive) tea in Japan. Otherwise, it's not long on nightlife.
- 1 Nakamura Kiyochi Honten (中村藤吉本店), 5-1 Ujirenge, ☎ . 10AM-5PM. Green tea and macha desserts. This cafe is located at the river front. There is another bigger cafe and shop near the JR rail station.
- Hanayashiki-Ukifune-en, Tounoshima-mae, ☎ . A beautifully-appointed ryokan with views of the Uji river, both from the rooms and the sauna upstairs. Rooms at ¥8,000〜¥12,000 with breakfast, or ¥16,000〜¥20,000 with two meals at the hotel restaurant.
- Seizan-so, 27-2, Uji-Tounokawa, ☎ . Another ryokan with views of the Uji River and two public baths. Japanese and Western style rooms are available. Rooms at ¥10,000 with breakfast or ¥16,000〜20,000 with two meals. Higher prices on weekends and holidays.
- Kyoto and Nara are a short trip in either direction; most visitors will have arrived from one or the other.
- Otsu If you are hungry for more Tale of Genji locations, visit Ishiyama-dera temple, where the book was written.
- Ise is only a couple hours away; it's home to the eponymous Ise Shrine, possibly the holiest and most important Shinto site.
- Osaka isn't far away if all of this classical atmosphere has you thirsting for a healthy dose of noise, neon and ferroconcrete.