宇治市 Island of the Phoenix

Yesterday I took a trip with some friends to Uji (宇治市), a town just outside of Kyoto. Uji is home to many temples as well as the Tale of Genji museum. This time we only went round Byodo-in, the main temple in Uji, but next time I hope to check out the other shrines and the museum. Byodo-in is one of Japan’s national treasures and is also a designated World Heritage Site, making it the second that I’ve visited in Kyoto. The main hall (phoenix hall) is also featured on the 10円 coin! Though it was a cloudy day I did my best to get some decent pictures.

Byodo-in (平等院), the characters literally meaning ‘equality’ 平等 and ‘temple’ 院, is home to the famous Phoenix hall which was constructed in 1053 by the politically powerful Fujiwara family. Prior to this the site was a manor house dating back to 998 but the rest of the buildings that made up the original compound were burned down in a civil war in 1336. If you’re curious, the civil war was due to the Kenmu Restoration in which the Emperor attempted to restore power to the Imperial line after centuries of military rule under the Kamakura Shogunate (1185 – 1333). Emperor Go-Daigo’s attempt at independent rule failed as he did not reward the samurai that supported him and he failed to address the urgent need for land reform (the major land owners were tax exempt and politically independent, creating financial crisis for the government). As a result there was a civil war in which Kyoto itself fell to rebel samurai. A new Shogun by the name of Ashikaga Takauji took power and Go-Daigo abdicated (and most of Byodo-in burned down), marking the start of the Muromachi period in Japanese history (1336 – 1573). This shows that the military control of government in Japan was not an unchallenged fact. The previous shogunate lost power to a promising new leader while the Emperor, despite his attempts at true imperial rule, had no real power beyond acting as a legitimisation system for the shoguns.

Phoenix hall is very beautiful but if you want to go in you have to pay extra and queue so we decided to just admire it from the outside. Inside it has a Buddha statue which is one of Japan’s national treasures so if you want to see it without waiting it may be a good idea to go on a weekday when it isn’t so busy (we were there on a Saturday). The temple also has a museum but as the temple shuts at 5:30 we didn’t have time to go round it (it also costs an extra 300円). Perhaps I’ll go back at some point and see the rest, though the outside of Phoenix hall is worth a trip in itself. Entrance to the Temple and its grounds costs 600円 and comes with an English-language leaflet explaining the buildings and grounds.

The hall itself is built on an island completely surrounded by a lake, giving a beautiful reflection on the water. I’m sure its even better when its actually sunny. There is also a bell tower on the hill overlooking the hall. You can do a circuit of the lake and outlying buildings without the museum in around 4o minutes. The grounds are not as huge as the map they give you seems to suggest.

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At the moment it’s Autumn in Kyoto and its just about time for 紅葉(Koyo – the turning of the leaves from green to red) which means that in a few weeks all the temple gardens will be a spectacular crimson (I hope). On Saturday there were a few trees just starting to turn though a lot are still half green, half yellowy-orange. The temple also had some lovely flowers in some of the less busy compounds.

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It was in these smaller courtyards that there were a number of graves of important samurai and the Temple’s administrative buildings. Here I got my Temple stamp done (朱印). This is the first stamp I’ve had done properly – the first one was already in the book and the second was pre-written. The lady let me choose from two different stamps before writing in the calligraphy with a 筆 (fude – Japanese writing brush). She then carefully blotted the paper and added the temple seals. The stamp cost 300円 which is pretty good value considering the skill required to properly write Japanese calligraphy.

P1010746 P1010721 P1010717In japan areas and towns tend to become famous for a local specialty food. Uji’s is all things matcha (抹茶). Matcha is finely ground green tea and is featured in the Japanese tea ceremony. The street leading up to Byodo-in was lined with shops selling matcha flavoured ice-cream, cake and sweets among other things. One shop was roasting matcha and the smell permeated half the street. Obviously I had to get something so I got a vanilla and matcha ice cream which came with sweet beans and dango, which are sweet dumplings made out of rice flour. It was delicious. I forgot to take a picture before I attacked it because it looked so good.

P1010730 P1010669 P1010668 P1010732On the way back to the station we passed the river. This is the Yodogawa (淀川) which flows from lake Biwa in the North East of Kyoto down to Osaka bay. It actually changes its name throughout its route and at Uji it is known as the Uji river (宇治川). By the river is a statue of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Tale of Genji – the final 15 chapters of the tale take place in Uji.

P1010733P1010735 P1010738Uji is one of those places that I definitely want to return to – there is a lot to do and to see, you could probably spend a whole day there. I would strongly recommend seeing Byodo-in even if it is a little pricey  – the Phoenix hall is really beautiful. You can get the train from either Kyoto station or from any station on the Keihan line in East Kyoto, costing about 240円 and taking about half an hour to forty minutes if you get the limited express train to Chushojima (中書島) and then change to the local train (the slow train all the way from central Kyoto takes forever).

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