A phoenix amid the tea fields of Uji

by Stephen Mansfield

Recalling the glorious Heian Period in Japan’s history from 794 to 1185 at once conjures up images of a world of courtiers, 12-layered kimono, elegant poetry competitions beside winding streams — and secret trysts in scented chambers.

At its heart, the immensely priviledged Heian court cultivated an intensely self-preoccupied culture — one in which the clumsy composition of a single line of poetry could doom a promising romance.

For members of the Imperial court in Kyoto, Uji — now a Kyoto Prefecture city just 30 minutes by rail from the former Imperial capital — must have felt to be a world apart. As a country retreat for aristocrats, it gloried in elegant retirement estates and dreamlike gardens built beside the Uji River. From their villas, the nobility could take their ease while regarding — should they wish — the soft line of hills forming a backdrop to the river, which even now is still home to herons and sweetfish.

The world beyond the fragrant confines of these villas was of little interest to their exalted occupants. While court ladies mixed perfumes and recorded amorous experiences in their diaries, the peasantry working on the Uji estates lived in the cramped and dirty wattle-and-clay huts, whose grass or shingled roofs, earthen floors and miserable peat fires would have afforded little comfort in the winter months.

In Murasaki Shikibu’s 1,000-year-old masterpiece, “The Tale of the Genji,” the eponymous hero of what is generally cited as the world’s first novel finds himself obliged to move to his estate at Uji — with the result that the last sections of the book are known as the “Uji Chapters.”

Prince Genji’s villa was near the town’s fish weirs — a source of irritation to the young nobleman, who found their continuous noise unsettling. However, it’s a sound modern visitors are likely to find soothing compared to that traffic over the town’s iconic Bridge of Floating Dreams.

Yet despite the troublesome weirs, even Genji finds the surroundings reinvigorating. In the book we learn he takes “an interest in flowers and autumn woods . . . spending hour after hour simply watching the river flow.”

In the 10th century, Fujiwara Michinaga, the Emperor’s chief adviser, built a home here, whose gardens and pavilions were further developed by his son, Yorimichi. Sadly, the extraordinary, aerodynamically light Phoenix Hall is all that remains of a temple and villa complex that once boasted 33 structures, including seven pagodas.

An architectural realization of Amida Buddha’s so-called Pure Land Paradise, its sweeping form resembling the outstretched wings of a phoenix in flight is mirrored in the Aji pond before it — itself meant to represent the Western Ocean. Today, its image is even honored on the reverse side of Japan’s ¥10 coin.

Not merely an exercise in ostentation, the original complex — like the mandala paintings of Tang Dynasty China (618-907) — was meant to raise believers to greater acts of faith and piety. “If you have any doubts about Paradise,” an ancient song inveighs, “go to worship at the temple at Uji.”

The Phoenix Hall’s transcendent beauty and aesthetic mastery of line still inspire. Amazingly, the building, dating from 1053, has survived typhoons, fire, earthquakes and neglect — and in 1994 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Replete with a coffered ceiling inlaid with mirrors, the centerpiece of the building is a wonderfully beatific Amida Buddha statue by the master Jocho. Close scrutiny of the figure, resting on a lotus pedestal, was strictly confined to the aristocracy. Commoners wanting to see the Buddha’s features had to peer through a small window in a building across the pond.

As the only extant piece of Heian Period architecture, Byodo-in — as the Phoenix Hall is also known — is our best model for reconstructing an image of what court religious as well as secular life might have been like. Although none have survived, period paintings suggest that the shinden-style residences of the nobility, conceived in the Chinese symmetrical style with a long, north-south central axis and side buildings to the east and west connected by corridors, were similar in design to the layout of the Byodo-in.

To delineate space so that mountain ranges and sweeping landscapes could be incorporated into the confines of these estates, their garden designers and architects necessarily pursued some compression or miniaturization. Hence, a little south of the main axis of a shinden was where a courtyard called a nantei was to be found, simply layered with sand or gravel. Although this served as a functional space for archery, cockfights and poetry readings, it also fulfilled aesthetic and spiritual purposes.

Nonetheless, a number of key aesthetics associated with the refinement of the Heian court and its co-opting of Buddhist concepts also prefigured doom.

The concept of mujo (impermanence and evanescence) held that “all realms of being are temporary.” This aspect of the culture derived from the third of the Three Laws of Buddhism — a belief that 2,000 years after the death of the historical Buddha (in the fifth century B.C.), the world would enter into a period known as mappo, the “end of law.” This was said to be presaged by a degeneration of moral and religious mores, leading to chaos and turmoil. As this era was believed to begin in 1052, it is little wonder that a sense of fatalism and gloom hung over the Heian court at this time, inevitably seeping into literature, the arts and the art of gardening. Byodo-in was opened in the first year of mappo.

If the inspiration for recreating the Pure Land Paradise in the earthly realm came from the palaces of China’s Tang Dynasty, the nearby monastery of Mampuku-ji takes its cue from the later Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A Zen temple, its provenance is seen in tasseled Chinese lanterns, moon windows, dolphin roof finials and the muted red colors of its buildings. It’s fitting that here, in the mild climate amid the dense greenery of Uji, the tea ceremony should have gained popularity. Uji’s undulating hills were one of the first places tea was grown in Japan. Steamed and rolled tea leaves, known as sencha, were introduced by Chinese priests working at Mampuku-ji.

Uji has several other features of interest, not least of which is the river itself and its series of bridges, islands, shrines, and the tea houses that line its banks. The journey into Uji’s past begins at the Bridge of Floating Dreams, the modern version of the original seventh-century structure that spans the river. A narrow shopping street runs from there to Byodo-in, and the first thing you notice walking along it is the smell of roasting tea.

Fragrant uji-cha (Uji green tea) was first planted in the 13th century and is still ranked the finest in Japan. Shops sell everything from packets of organic sencha, to green-tea noodles, green-tea health drinks, tea confectionery, biscuits and cakes.

It is here, in the older section of town near the river, that the spirit of Murasaki Shikibu’s Uji, Yorimichi Michinaga’s Pure Land Paradise, and a later, more earthly mercantile ethic, merge and blend.

Getting there: Uji can be reached in 30 to 40 minutes on the JR Nara Line from Kyoto and Nara. The tourist office along the river near Byodo-in has maps and other useful data in English. Magozaemon, opposite the entrance to Byodo-in, is excellent for homemade noodles and green-tea udon dishes. Taiho-an, a traditional tea house next to the information office, offers bowls of exquisite green tea. Stephen Mansfield is a Japan-based British photojournalist. He is the author of 2009′s “Tokyo: A Cultural And Literary History,” and several other books.