Sipping on Heian history in Uji

by Chris Bamforth

If there is one place in Japan to arrive absolutely gasping for a cup of tea, that place is Uji in Kyoto Prefecture. Since the 13th century, this town just to the south of Kyoto has been producing green tea, and many consider the green stuff of Uji to be the best in the land. As one might suppose, this opinion is the one that generally holds sway in Uji itself.

“What is the best and most famous Japanese tea?” the official guidebook coyly asks in its introductory note. And lest any misguided reader starts trying to recall place names in Shizuoka Prefecture — famous for its tea — the guide rapidly answers “Uji Green Tea!”

Here, in this town — where Starbucks is anathema — it is a tough job to go anywhere without consuming its famous product, with green tea being liberally doled out on the street as you walk by. In one tea-merchant’s shop, it was quite clear that I was there simply to take photos and didn’t have the slightest intention of buying any tea. I was still offered the stuff. I politely declined. I was brought a bowl, anyway.

That tea store was located in the street known as Byodoin Omotesando, where, this being Japan, green tea is sold not simply as tea, but in a whole range of products ranging from ice cream and dango dumplings to noodles. Along this road, those seeking a quietly atmospheric slice of old Japan can experience it in the shape of a tea garden: It’s all bamboo fences; stepping stones on deep moss; red, paper umbrellas; and the delicate twanging of koto.

Standing at the end of that road is Uji’s most famous structure and the main reason for visiting this town. Among what architecture remains of Japan’s Heian Period (794-1192), the elegant Phoenix Hall of the Buddhist temple — that goes by the name of Byodoin — is far and away the finest, and for some it is the loveliest piece of architecture Japan possesses. Built in 1053, the almost painfully graceful Phoenix Hall is all that remains of the original temple, and within that hall is housed a gilded statue of the Amida Buddha.

On either side of this hall stand two wings that serve no practical function whatsoever: They lead nowhere, contain nothing, cannot be accessed and their ceilings are too low to allow a person to stand. The wings are there simply to add magnificence, and it is these that give the Phoenix Hall its transcendent beauty. That we are able to see the Phoenix Hall today is no small wonder. Not too many major buildings from the Heian Era survived Japan’s tumultuous 15th century — the Warring States Period.

At one time, this hall was the derelict home of squatters, who warmed themselves beside fires they lit under its roof. Today, in keeping with the antiquity of the structure, the Phoenix Hall has an agreeably run-down look about it, and you do hope they don’t get round to giving the thing a proper paint-job anytime soon. The best view of the hall is from the far side of the pond. With Byodoin as the backdrop, this is where the tour groups stand and pose for the obligatory group photo. And this is where the wag in the group holds aloft a 10 yen coin so that the folks back home don’t forget that Byodoin appears on the obverse.

The Heian mood in Uji is not, however, restricted to its wonderful old temple. As images all around the town indicate, Uji is closely identified with the “Tale of Genji,” written in Heian times by Murasaki Shikibu and generally regarded as Japan’s greatest literary classic. The final 10 chapters of the book, which occur long after the death of the titular hero, are often referred to as the “Uji Chapters” since this is where most of the action is set. You do not have to be any devotee of Murasaki’s work to find interest in the Tale of Genji Museum, located on the far side of the Uji River from Byodoin. The museum is an engaging re-creation of a fascinating period in Japanese history.

Many Japanese look back on the Heian Period as a kind of Golden Age, when the nobility created for itself one of the most aesthetically centered societies that has ever existed, devoting its time to an appreciation of art, nature, literature and “the beautiful things in life.” The Heian hoi polloi, by contrast, tended to devote its time to surviving conditions of abject poverty.

It is, of course, the nobles’ view of the Heian that is presented in the museum. Among the large displays here are a colorful reproduction of a lacquered ox-cart, the main form of transport for the Heian aristocracy, and a model of the fictional Rokujo-in, Genji’s grand palace, divided into four seasonal gardens, which gives an indication of the extraordinary lifestyle enjoyed by Heian nobility. A full-scale model of a famous night scene in the “Tale of Genji” shows a courtier standing outside a house where the two women inside are performing a duet, conveying well the twilight world in which much of the book is placed.

The river that flows through Uji also figures prominently in the final chapters of “Genji.” Uji is located at the point where its river leaves a mountain gorge for the open plain, and the broad Uji is one of Japan’s more attractive rivers, not least due to the absence of massive concrete flanking its banks.

The main bridge that crosses the river is a major focal point in the town, as it has been since the first bridge was constructed in A.D. 646 Here, a major battle was fought in 1180, part of the long Taira-Minamoto War. Five years later, the Taira clan was defeated, almost seven centuries of warrior government was about to begin and the fascinating world of the Heian disappeared forever.