SYNOPSIS:  About a temple, a rundown shrine and a missed one, a famous bridge and tea.


Uji is a small town between Nara and Kyoto that nobody would pay much attention to where it not for four things all at once: some of the best tea is coming from the Uji region, ten chapters of the famous Tale of Genji are taking place in Uji, and a whopping two of the 17 UNESCO monuments that are usually rolled together as the “Kyoto world heritage sites” are actually from Uji, which attests to its historical importance as the link between Nara and Kyoto.

A trip south was therefore in order.

The Byodo-in, or Phoenix Hall in Uji and the Kinkakuji in Kyoto are likely the two most beautiful executions of Pure Land Buddhism in all of Japan.  The Byodo-in has the advantage that you are able to enter the hall and get a really good feeling of the idea of Amida Buddha presiding over his paradise.

The site itself started out as a palace before it was converted into a temple in the 11th century.  The Phoenix hall features a single colossal, seated, gilded Buddha figure which has the added claim to fame as being the only authentic work of the great sculptor Jocho who influenced Japanese Buddhist sculpture for over 150 years, and who died in 1057.  He is also known as Jōchō Busshi.  The doors in front of it open to the pond and the head of the figure is lined up with a square opening in the latticed upper part of the doors, allowing the Buddha to look out over the pond.   26 (I think) musician figures, heavenly maidens, or apsaras are executed in relief and pinned to the wall of the hall, surrounding Amida’s head.  They play the full range of known instruments from lots of drums and percussion, to wind and string instruments.  They are adorable!  I would not mind a replica of one of those for my house…

All of the figures as well as the hall date authentically to the Heian period (794-1185) no fire, no destruction, no reconstruction here, except a heavy makeover and repainting of the hall exterior over the last two years.  A comparison between slides taken in 1993 by professor Kane and mine this year make that strikingly clear.  I don’t mind worn out old wood at all — to me, age should show to be appreciated.  But for some reason, Japanese seem to prefer the shiny repaint.  Or is it a matter of preservation?  I am glad the restorers stopped short of the interior.  It still has the patina of years gone by.

Photography was not allowed, but since the entire 15 minute tour as well as the full 5 minute long instruction on behavior was entirely conducted in Japanese, I decided to play dumb and take one picture, for which I was duly scolded.

The Ujigami Shrine is much less popular than the Byodo-in but nonetheless has been added to the world heritage list as it represents one of the few extant shrines in the indigenous nagare-zukuri style.  I am just so, so embarrassed to say that I missed it.  I don’t know how to explain this…

I crossed the river over the famous Uji bridge and where on my map the shrine should have been, there indeed was one.  But there was no UNESCO sign, no English language anything and it seemed a bit small to me, not to mention run-down.  I should have read the signs and followed my instincts.  Something did not seem right.  But I recognized the architectural style and convinced myself that I was in the right place.  I felt sorry for this world-heritage site and its neglected state but I knew this one would not be a big, flashy sight.

When I came home and opened the guide book (which I was too lazy to carry), it turned out that 100 meters south of the Ujigami Shrine there is the Uji Shrine.  Once they were a unit, but the Meiji restoration separated them.  And yes, both are from the same period and therefore constructed in the same style.  Ughh, I can’t believe this happened.  I never even made it to the Ujigami…  I know I did not miss anything really important, it’s more the fact that I was that close and missed it at all that bugged me!  It must be temple-shrine fatigue.

In fact, as this is one of the last couple of days in Kyoto, I have to say that I am quite worn out.  20+ temples, 5+ shrines, 10+ other things (like markets, theater, castles and the like) — this was a marathon with two more days to go.  Add the heat to this all — when there came a sign that said  “Genji Museum” , it could not even sway me to walk just a single kilometer to check it out.  That says something.

Instead, I stopped at one of the little wooden buildings along the river and in honor of the reputation of Uji tea, I ordered some green tea.  Don’t order this if you are thirsty.  You get a small plate with some sweets on it which you are supposed to eat in full before you start the tea.  I tried to order the tea without the sweets, but most likely that was a real insult.  The restaurant owner did not even know what to make of that request.  Gotta have those sweets whether you like them or not.  The tea is no more than three soupy sips and as I learned in a tea ceremony demonstration, has more caffeine than coffee has.  It perked me up all right.   But not enough to check out the Genji Museum.  🙂

It was time to call it a day.

Did I mention that my external hard drive conked out on me again?  It did that once before, several weeks ago.  I thought I was done with that.  3-5 hours of re-copying all my photo files and relinking with Lightroom are ahead of me, this time, on to a different external drive (no wonder my luggage is so heavy).  Since the last disaster I kept a very strict and consistent daily filing system on all of my chips — that will pay off now.  Just as a side note for frequent travelers: organization is key.  That goes for items as much as photos.

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. Another “ETism”: “to me, age should show to be appreciated.” I have a feeling you mean that about people, too, not just architecture. I wonder if you will still feel this way when you’re in your 70s or 80s?

    Or, will you feel more like Prufrock as TS Eliot describes his self consciousness about his age in the poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’:

    “And indeed there will be time
    To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
    Time to turn back and descend the stair,
    With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
    (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
    (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

    My comment doesn’t have much to do with temples and shrines…but yet everything to do with them!!

    • Haha, that requires graceful aging, of course!