We had planned to visit Uji yesterday, the day of the famous fireworks which is supposed to be one of the greatest and largest around. So we went to the city of Uji, which is less than 20 minutes away by train from our place in Kyoto. Unfortunately, on arrival, we discovered that the show had been canceled due to the typhoon and heavy rain. Well, that was too bad for the fireworks, but at least we would get to see Uji’s main attractions.
Uji (宇治) is a small city situated between Kyoto and Nara, two of Japan’s most famous historical and cultural centers. Its proximity to these two former capitals resulted in Uji’s early development as a cultural center in its own right. The two main places (Byodoin Temple and Ujigami Shrine) are both Unesco World Heritage sites and both attract a lot of visitors.
Byodoin Temple (平等院, Byōdōin) is a perfect example of Buddhist Pure Land (Jodo) architecture. Together with its garden, the temple represents the Pure Land Paradise. It initially was built in 998 as a countryside retreat villa for the powerful politician Fujiwara no Michinaga, not as a temple. Michinaga’s son turned Byodoin into a temple and ordered the construction of its most spectacular feature, the Phoenix Hall built in 1053. It was nicknamed Hoodo (“Phoenix Hall”) because of its shape and the two phoenix statues on its roof. The hall is now featured on the back of the Japanese ten yen coin.
After arriving at the temple, we immediately purchased another ticket to visit the hall, but had to wait for almost one hour. This gave us enough time to visit the garden and the small museum. The hall is indeed truly beautiful and the statue of the Amida Buddha inside is magnifient.
Another detail worth mentioning is the fact that this Phoenix Hall was never destroyed by fired like so many other structures in Japan. This makes it one of the few original wooden structures to survive from the Heian Period.
The second place, the Ujigami Shrine (宇治上神社, Ujigami Jinja) is believed to be the oldest standing shrine in Japan. Although there is no official record of when it was first constructed, experts estimate that Ujigami Shrine was well established by 1060. It was closely linked to Byodoin Temple as its “guardian shrine”.
Unfortunately, the main hall being renovated, it is completely covered up and we could not see more than the Haiden and the two little Kasuga shrines. We definitely will have to return here next year. A hundred meters south stands Uji Shrine, also built in the same nagare-zukuri style. It was closed and we could not see much more than the front facade.
Uji is also famous for its green tea and there are green tea shops everywhere. We enjoyed a little matcha (green tea) ice cream.