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Discovering the History and Tea of Uji in Half a Day : A Trip Along the Kyoto-Nara Line

2021.12.16

Kyoto and Nara are without a doubt Kansai’s most popular locations, both culturally and historically rich, with timelines in both dating back centuries. Travel between the two is especially convenient for JR-WEST RAIL PASS holders, and between the two is another equally captivating location that should not be missed along the way, Uji, in southern Kyoto Prefecture. From Kyoto Station on the JR Nara Line Uji can be reached in a little as 20 minutes.
“So, what can you expect to enjoy and experience with a half-day visit to scenic Uji?”

・JR Uji Station
・Byodo-in Buddhist Temple & Museum
・ Uji Park and crossing of Asagiri Bridge
・ Mounts Asahi & Daikichi Hike*
・Tsuen Historical Tea House and Shop
・ Uji Bridge
・ JR Uji Station

JR Uji Station

Servicing both local and rapid trains along the JR Nara Line between Kyoto and Nara, Uji Station is our first stop on the route (be careful not to confuse this with Keihan Uji Station, another nearby station). Construction of the Nara Line began in 1879 and Uji Station was opened 17 years later in 1896. The current station building was constructed in 2000 and is designed to imitate the famous Phoenix Hall at the World Heritage site Byodo-in Temple (a location that we will visit later on in this route).

Although records show of settlements in the Uji area since the 5th century, Uji as a city was founded in 1951. At the foot of the station steps you will find a large tea pot mailbox which was put in place in 2001 to commemorate 50th anniversary of the founding of Uji City, and next to this is the Uji Tourist Information office.

Byodo-in Buddhist Temple & Hoshokan Museum

Kyoto boasts no less than seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of which is the Byodo-in Buddhist Temple by the west banks of the River Uji. The Heian era (794-1185) courtier Minamoto no Shigenobu once owned land for a mansion here, which was bought by Fujiwara no Michinaga from Shigenobu’s widow after his death. Fujiwara no Michinaga was a high-ranking statesman of the court. The character Genji from Murasaki’s novel The Tale of Genji is believed in part to have been based on Michinaga, and it was his son, Fujiwara no Yorimichi, who then constructed Byodo-in and converted it into a Buddhist temple in 1052.

The most famous of its buildings the Phoenix Hall, was built in 1053, and is featured on one side of the 10 yen coin. The Phoenix Hall has, as would be expected, been through a number of renovations over the centuries, but remains as the only existing building dating from the the time of its original construction. It takes its name from the fact that the building resembles the fabled bird with its main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor. And although its official name is Amida-dō, it began to be called the Phoenix Hall around the early Edo period (1603-1868).

In the grounds of Byodo-in is also the Hoshokan Museum which opened in 2001. The museum exhibits include 26 statues of the Praying Bodhisattva on Clouds and a pair of phoenixes from the rooftop of Phoenix Hall. When designing the museum, it had to blend in with the main hall and other complexes within the temple, and so the majority of the museum buildings are underground.

Along with its beautifully landscaped and scenic gardens, the Byodo-in Temple and grounds are a must for any visitor to Uji.

Byodo-in Temple

Byodo-in Temple

Byodo-in Temple, which shows the historical glory of the Fujiwara clan, was once a villa on the west bank of the Uji-gawa River. It belonged to Minamoto no Toru but was given to Fujiwara no Michinaga. His son, Yorimichi, converted it into a temple. The Houou-do (Phoenix Hall, a National Treasure), which is surrounded by the Aji-ike pond, demonstrates elements of the gardens of the Heian period (794-1185). The influence of the Heian aristocracy, who dreamt of entering the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, can be seen in the building. Byodo-in Temple is depicted on the 10-yen coin and is a familiar sight in Japan.
Meanwhile, the Byodo-in Museum Hoshokan exhibits precious items owned by the temple, such as the National Treasures of a Gilt Bronze Phoenix, “Unchu Kuyo Bosatsu” (Buddhist saints holding a mass in the clouds), and Bonshou (temple bells). Reproductions that made with computer graphics utilizing state-of-the-art digital technology can also be enjoyed in the museum.

Uji Park & Crossing of Asagiri Bridge

Exiting Byodo-in Temple via the museum gate brings us out onto the main road which leads east and after a left turn to the Kisen-bashi Bridge and over to two small islands connected by a bridge in the middle. The smaller island is called Tonoshima, the longer north island is Tachibanajima. Collectively they are called Nakanoshima, or Uji Park.

On Tonoshima is the magnificent 13-storied pagoda, Jusanju Sekito, built by the monk Eison of Saidai-ji Temple in 1288. At that time, the flow of Uji River was causing damage to Uji Bridge, it was believed that the angry spirits of the fish caught in the river with wicker fishing traps were causing this. This style of fishing was banned on the river, equipment was buried on Tonoshima and the stone pagoda erected on the site to quell the angry spirits and pray for the safety of Uji Bridge. During floods in 1756 the pagoda was carried away, but was later discovered in the early 1900’s and rebuilt on the island in 1908. At 15 metres high, it is the tallest stone pagoda in Japan.

Uji, and the Uji River, are famous for another form of fishing, cormorant bird fishing (ukai). Although the summer event takes place during the evening, on this walk you will be able to see the caged birds on the island. The birds dive down into the river, catch a fish which is held in their throats and then upon returning to the boats the fish is removed by the ‘bird masters’.

Our route continues on the east side of the Uji River, which means crossing from the Uji Park islands to the east bank via the Asagiri Bridge.

Uji River Islands Tonoshima & Tachibanajima

Uji River Islands Tonoshima & Tachibanajima

Tonoshima and Tachibanajima Islands are collectively called Nakanoshima (islands in the middle of the river). There is a beautiful 13-story pagoda around 15 meters tall on Tonoshima. It was built in the Late Kamakura period (1192-1333) by the monk Eison, of Nara’s Saidai-ji Temple, to pray for the souls of fish. The pagoda, which was buried by the river in a flood in 1756, was rediscovered and rebuilt towards the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912).
The flood levees are famous for the cherry trees that flower there. In early April, the Ujigawa Cherry Blossom Festival is held on the island, which has now become a park.

Mounts Asahi and Daikichi Hike

The route to Mount Asahi begins at the entrance to the 17th century Kosho-ji Temple. To the right of the white walled entrance a path runs around to the back and then leads on to the hiking trail.

The routes up the mountain are well used by locals but they never get too busy. The atmosphere is peaceful and the nature on display is breathtaking. The route is not too long, around 15 minutes from Kosho-ji before you find yourself climbing a narrow winding rock route up to a small plateau top.

The top area is quite spacious, well looked after, and there are a number of mounds made from piled up small rocks, a tall stone pagoda (said to have been erected by Naomasa Nagai, the 17th century Lord of Yodo), and a wooden hut which houses Asahiyama Kannon, a figurine of the Buddhist deity of mercy.

But most interesting is a tombstone that is said to be that of Crown Prince Uji no Wakiiratsuko. The story told of Crown Prince Uji no Wakiiratsuko is that he committed suicide by throwing himself into the Uji River so that his half-brother, Prince Nintoku, could take the throne and become the 16th Emperor instead of him. Another folktale story connected to Uji no Wakiiratsuko tells that once when finding himself lost he was guided back to town by a rabbit. The rabbit is said to have led the way whilst constantly looking back to check that the Crown Prince was following. Because of that story you will find rabbit charms at Ujigami Shrine at the base of Mount Daikichi, and around Uji.

From Mount Asahi the route retraces our steps a little before taking a route north leading to the Daikichiyama Observation Deck. From here is a fantastic view right across the expanse of Uji City and beyond (see Byodo-in Temple from above!). This observation deck was also used as a location for the Kyoto Animation movie Hibike! Euphonium.

The route down Mount Daikichi is an easy but winding walk and often used by elderly locals for morning exercise. It takes about twenty minutes from the observation deck to the bottom and back down to the road by the river. From here the narrow road by the river leads north towards Uji Bridge.

Tsuen Historical Tea House and Shop

Tsuen Tea House, the oldest teahouse in Japan, was founded in Uji in 1160. Established by Furukawa Unai, a samurai vassal of Minamoto no Yorimasa, who would later change his name to Tsuen Masahisa, the teahouse is currently run by a 24th generation member of the Tsuen family. The building as it stands today incorporates parts that date back to 1672, is a fine example of machiya architecture, and is recognized as a Japanese heritage site.

After retiring from his samurai roles, Furukawa adopted the name Tsuen, became a monk, and took his residence at the east end of Uji Bridge. His descendants carried on the Tsuen surname, serving as guardians of the bridge, praying for its durability and the safety of those that crossed over it. Amongst those that came to Tsuen for this service were such historical figures as shoguns Ashikaga Yoshimasa and Tokugawa Ieyasu, as well as the leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Tsuen is not just a place to purchase Uji tea (including matcha, the oldest and most well-known tea in Japan, sencha, the most consumed tea in Japan, and hojicha, which is a roasted tea as opposed to steamed, amongst others) but also has a seating area inside that looks out over the scenic Uji River. It is the perfect place to relax and enjoy some of the authentic Japanese sweets on the menu, such as matcha dango or a mix of bitter matcha with sweet cream in a matcha parfait. You could also try some matcha soba noodles.

On display inside the entrance are ceramic tea jars several hundred years old, along with a small wooden statue of the Tsuen founder as he appears in the comic Kyogen play “Tsuen,” carved and presented to the tea house by the renowned 15th century monk Ikkyu Osho. Also displayed is a wooden bucket reputed to have been made by the famous tea ceremony practitioner Sen no Rikyu (the 16th century tea master to Oda Nobunaga who would later commit ceremonial suicide at the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi).

Tsuen Tea House is a perfect stopping point along the route to really understand Uji, not just its tea but the history and historical figures that have shaped the culture and story of the city.

Tsuen Chaya Tea house

This long-standing shop was built in 1160, and it is said to have been visited by such historical figures as warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, samurai Miyamoto Musashi and his lover Otsu. Visitors can enjoy matcha or sencha dango tea sets and more at the attached café.

Uji Bridge

From Tsuen Tea House we head over the Uji Bridge back towards JR Uji Station. The current Uji Bridge was constructed in 1996. In fitting with the area it is lined with small tea bushes, and offers amazing views of the scenic nature of Uji in both directions. In the middle of the bridge is a spot where it is said that Hideyoshi Toyetomi, the famous 16th century warlord, drew water for his tea ceremony. Nowadays, water is drawn from this point every October during the annual Uji-cha Festival.

There has been an ‘Uji Bridge’ since the 7th century, and the first was erected in 646. The bridge appears in many pieces of literature including The Tale of Genji, and on the south-west side of the bridge you’ll find a stone statue of the author Murasaki Shikibu.

It is a location that has also been the scene of 12th and 13th century battles. One of those battles, in 1180, was fought between the Minamoto and the Taira imperial houses. On one side was Minamoto Yorimasa, friend of the above-mentioned Tsuen Masahisa, who actually stood on the side of the Minamoto in the battle, vastly outnumbered by the Taira warriors on the other. Whilst crossing the bridge to escape, the Minamoto pulled up parts of the bridge, making it impossible for the chasing Taira to cross. Volleys of arrows were fired across from the riverbank and eventually a river crossing was made on horseback by the larger forces of the Taira. Tsuen Misahisa and Minamoto Yorimasa, who had taken an arrow in the knee during the battle, proceeded to commit ceremonial suicide (seppuku) in the gardens of Byodo-in Temple, knowing that defeat was inevitable as they were vastly outnumbered. Legend has it that Yorimasa’s head was thrown in to the Uji River by one of his own men to avoid it falling into enemy hands.

A second battle at Uji Bridge, in 1184, involved the famed samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune after he chased his fellow Minamoto, Yoshinaka, who with his forces had kidnapped the Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Yoshitsune and his men caught up with and defeated Yoshinaka at Uji.

The third battle of Uji occurred in 1221 between the Emperor Go-Toba supporters and the Shogunate. Uji was seen as a gateway into Kyoto and the bridge was a key defensive point. The Emperor stood firm for many hours before eventually the Shogun broke through and the defending army was routed.

As you cross the bridge as it stands today, taking in the scenes of boats along the flowing river and the beautiful mountain ranges rising up on either side, it is incredible to think about the turbulent historical events that played out in this very spot in centuries past.

Uji JR Station

And so, our route brings us back to the starting point of Uji JR Station. From here you can continue your journey either to Kyoto or Nara via local or rapid trains. Uji is a part of Kyoto that has played a huge role in the historical and cultural story of the country as a whole. Experiencing Uji in a half day offers a glimpse of that history and culture, famed for its tea but offering so much more.