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From Genji to Green Tea – A daytrip to Uji

August 26, 2011

I took a day off this week and went to Uji (宇治) in Kyoto together with a group of foreign students and three Japanese tourist guides. I had to get up at 6 to arrive at the meeting point at Kyoto station by 8:30 and was really tired, but when I got there and met the other participants of the group my tiredness just flew away.

Before going to Uji, our first stop was the photo salon “Yumeyakata” where we got dressed in yukata, the light summer version of a kimono. We could leave our clothes and shoes there and even got bags fitting to the Japanese attire so that nothing would interfere with our new looks. The staff was very friendly and professional. Even a tall and chubby girl like me was wrapped in yukata without any problems and each of us got a different form of ribbon displaying the art of Japanese dressing. I can only do the most simple kind of ribbon myself so this was the first highlight of the tour for me.

It takes around 17 minutes by JR from Kyoto station to get to Uji, but you could get there by Keihan as well. For an overview of access to Uji click here. Go to one of the tourist informations to get an illustrated map (available in English, Korean and Chinese) which gives an overview of the tourists spots and will guide you. You’ll also find maps and guideposts along the way and most include English so that it is easy to discover Uji on foot.

We went to visit the The Tale of Genji Museum first. The “Tale of Genji” (Genji-monogatari 源氏物語) was written by Murasaki Shikibu over 1000 years ago and tells the story of the life of prince Genji. It is said to be the world’s first ever written novel. The third part tells the story of Hikaru Genji’s son Kaoru and the last ten chapters of the tale are set in Uji. The museum focuses on these ten Uji chapters (Uji-jujo 宇治十帖). You can watch a short film called “The Princess at the Bridge” (Hashi-hime 橋姫) named after the first of the ten Uji chapters. The bridge over Uji river is still existent today and contains a deep meaning as the museum’s website suggests:

This ‘hashi’ (bridge) literarily refers to a bridge connecting Heian Kyo and Uji, but is also considered to imply a link between ‘higan and shigan’ (the other world and this world) as well as between a man and a woman.

The film partly shows computer generated scenes to lead you into the world of ancient Japan. In combination with the exhibition you’ll get a glimpse on court life as it is told in the “Tale of Genji”. All this is located in a modern building surrounded by a tranquil garden. You can enjoy the scenery in the museum’s cafe or move on to see more of the beautiful Uji area.

A must-see of Uji is the Byodoin (平等院). This temple was built in 1053 and its Phoenix hall is supposed to be modeled after the palace in the Land of Happiness as the Pure Land Buddhism imagines it. It is also depicted on the Japanese 10 Yen coin, while one of the Phoenixes on the roof adorns the back of the 10.000 Yen note.Included in the entrance fee is access to the museum which exhibits treasures from Byodoin such as bodhisattvas and a temple-bell. This bell is covered with carvings depicting phoenixes and bodhisattvas and lots of dots on the upper part of the bell. According to the bell’s description:

These dots are referred to as chi in Japanese, or nipples.

Nipples? Seriously?? I won’t show you a picture of the bell here. You have to find out how the bell’s nipples look by yourself 😉

Then it was time for lunch. We enjoyed green tea soba-noodles and fried vegetables, including green tea leaves, and shrimp served with green tea from Uji of course. The restaurant was called “Uji-gawa” (宇治川) and is to be found on the way to Byodoin. You’ll find lots of cafes and restaurants there, all of serving specialities of Kyoto and most containing green tea in some kind of way. There’s hardly any food or sweets that don’t contain green tea or maccha (抹茶), powered green tea.

Consequently, our next station was a green tea factory where we could try to make maccha. Only maccha is drunk as powder and said to be healthier than the other kinds of tea, because the whole green tea leaves are used and only dried but not fermented. The dried leaves are ground slowly to powder which is then pressed through a sieve. The resulting maccha is mixed with hot water and whisked quickly with a tool called chasen (茶筅). The more froth the more delicious 🙂 It looks way easier than it is and when I tried to whisk it myself I couldn’t reach the same fine taste as the professional… The maccha was served with a sweet called yokan (羊羹) which was made of sweet bean paste and tea jelly.

Then we had some time to walk around Uji freely. We visited Uji- and Ujikami-shrine which belongs to the world heritage. If we had more time I would have liked to see Mimurodo-temple (三室戸寺) or Manpuku-temple (萬福寺), but we decided to get some green tea sweets before returning to the station. While maccha ice cream was very popular, I tried maccha pudding topped with mochi and sweet bean paste. It was yummie♥ There are many other forms of sweets you can try at Uji and I can only recommend warmly to stop by if you are in the Kansai area.

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