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).

京都 Snapshots: October

Visiting places in Kyoto usually involves lots to see and do at just one location and as a result I can usually dedicate a whole blog post to one subject, but if I only published posts on each big topic I would inevitably miss out photos and moments that aren’t worthy of a whole post by themselves. This post is for those pictures that would otherwise never get published despite being interesting. I will probably create a post like this for each month so this one will be for October.

 先斗町 Pontocho

While I will probably revisit Pontocho as it is a very interesting area, I would like to at least introduce it a little now. Those who have read ‘Geisha‘ by Liza Dalby will recognise the name at least. Pontocho is one of the areas of Kyoto where it is possible to see Geisha. Geisha are women that entertain businessmen through conversation, dance and music. The word ‘geisha’ (芸者) literally means ‘artist’. Contrary to outside perception Geisha are not normally prostitutes, instead they are considered entertainers and most do not sleep with clients. Their kimono are beautiful and cost  thousands of pounds and they can be seen travelling between appointments in both Pontocho and nearby Gion (just across the river from Pontocho). While it feels a bit awkward to take pictures of people who are clearly travelling between jobs I did take a few when we came across geisha waiting to meet a client.


Pontocho itself is worth a visit simply for the huge variety of restaurants and the beauty of the street itself – it is a narrow pedestrian street lined with restaurants on either side, each displaying a lantern. In the summer the restaurants on the river side of the street have seating on porches over the river. Most of the restaurants are reasonably priced and many have menus in English. A few have amusing displays like the miniature food pictured below. I’m not entirely sure where I took the second picture but I have a feeling it was somewhere near Pontocho. No, I have no idea what’s going on either.


鴨川 Kamogawa

The Kamo river is something I have already talked about before but it is ever-changing with the time of day and season and it’s always beautiful. There is a huge variety of wildlife on the Kamogawa, especially birds – I’ve seen herons, egrets, mallards and kites alongside many other unfamiliar birds. There are also giant salamanders upstream – I hope to see one before I leave! If you want to see how huge they get check out this article – this salamander had to have a policeman keeping an eye on it so the public weren’t scared.

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京都タワー Kyoto Tower

Anyone who  has visited Kyoto has at least seen Kyoto tower – it’s slap-bang in front of Kyoto Station. Though I’ve been twice, both times were at night and so I didn’t get to see quite as far as it is possible to in the daytime, however, looking at all the lights in Kyoto sprawling out around you gives a real sense of how big Kyoto actually is. Kyoto has a tendency to feel more like a town than a city if you live outside the centre and seeing that it stretches all the way from the mountains in the West to the East is spectacular. If you do go up at night try to spot To-ji (東寺) pagoda which is lit up at night. Tickets for adults cost 770円 and it’s definitely worth a visit.


嵐山 Arashiyama

While I will definitely be going back to Arashiyama in daylight, I would like to share some of the pictures I took at night. Arashiyama is to the West of Kyoto and is home to loads of temples, a bamboo forest and a monkey park – you can easily spend the whole day there (and I intend to). When we arrived (I went with my parents) it was just starting to get dark and though I wouldn’t really recommend going at night as everything shuts and you can’t really see, it was lovely to watch the sun set over the Ōi River (大堰川), a river much larger than the Kamogawa.

P1010050C P1010059 P1010061 P1010074c広隆寺 Koryu-ji

Koryu-ji is a temple in West Kyoto that probably doesn’t get many visitors owing to the fact that it’s completely out-of-the-way of everything else (though it is on the way to Arashiyama if you’re willing to get off the train). The main attraction of Koryu-ji is the impressive collection of buddhist statues it has on display in one of the halls. The exhibition costs around 500円 and consists of one room, but there are a lot of statues with some dating back to the 11th century. Worth a visit if you enjoy Buddhist art and historical artifacts. The temple grounds are large and it has a beautiful mossy forest garden. Perhaps not worth the journey for some but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

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