Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tea Time in Uji

My current stop is Uji, a major tea producing region in Japan, and possibly the one with the best tourist industry built around it.

The city lies along a river, close to some mountains that make the whole place incredibly picturesque. Along a few streets, tea shops and restaurants line up and compete for attention from the passerby. This morning I was up before most restaurants opened, so I headed to Byodo-in, a temple complex nearby.

The main feature is the Phoenix Hall, so named both because the building layout has two wings and a rather unusual "tail" hallway extending behind it, and because the two main ornaments on the highest roof are phoenix statues. The hall is a World Heritage Site, and the phoenix statues themselves are rated National Treasures in Japan. The building has a beautiful reflecting pool in front of it, and is surrounded by well maintained gardens, winding paths, and about 100 middle-schoolers on field trips, all taking turns posing for photos in front of the Hall. (Number of middle-schoolers may vary.) The inside of the Hall is said to have been designed to portray the land of the Buddha (it gets more complicated than that, but the intricacies are best left to someone who actually knows more about Pure Land Buddhism than me).

Since I was last here, they've built a gorgeous museum and used computers to simulate what the Phoenix Hall probably looked like when it was first built, around a thousand years ago. Wars, reconstructions and time have taken most of the glitter off it, but it must have been quite dazzling at the time. The Hall itself has escaped fire damage for its whole life, so much of it is actually original. A lot of the surrounding buildings did not survive, however, and the current area is smaller than the original complex.

After sightseeing, some of the stores were opening for business, so stopped to get a green tea ice cream, with powdered green tea on top. Except for inhaling green tea on the first bite (not recommended, though it amused everyone around who had already choked on their powdered green tea earlier), it was truly delicious.

I eventually found a place serving handmade green tea udon (thick noodles) for lunch. In the afternoon, a tea house overlooking the river served me some kabuse cha (green tea that, for part of the growing period, had nets spread over the plants; the shade forces the plant to increase the amount of chlorophyl, making the tea a darker green) and as much hot water as I wanted. (The tea was strong, but really smooth and rather sweet. Delicious.) Finally, to top off the late afternoon, I got some green tea shaved ice that was probably the best shaved ice I've ever had. I think I actually had enough green tea for the day. :)

As the day drew to a close, I stopped by the Tale of Genji Museum (also quite new and beautifully done). Besides lots of kimonos and drawings, they had built a few scenes from the story, put together a "smelling area" with samples of the smells referenced in the story (fortunately, being a romance, they were largely very pleasant smells), and had a movie theater with an HD projector showing a 20 minute enactment of the story. Not bad! (The Tale of Genji was actually writen, supposedly, around Ishiyama, close to Lake Biwa, to the Northeast of here. However, part of the story was set in Uji -- something along the lines of "we'll always have Uji".)

Although the day was quite warm, a strong wind cooled things off in the later afternoon. The place I'm staying at overlooks the river and, besides being a hotel, is also a souvenir shop and small restaurant. My room is enormous by Japanese standards, with two 6-mat rooms and dividers between the two (that's about two 12'x12' rooms). Interestingly, looks like the inner room used to be a tea room (there's a telltale cutout on the tatami mats for where the water heater goes for a tea ceremony). No wonder I slept so well last night. :)

1 comment:

Nari said...

Oh you know all the things to do in Uji already :) I envy your macha opportunities!