After waiting around Nara for a few hours, I finally got to see the mochi making demonstration. This was something I had been looking forward to for months, and that on its own was worth the trip to Nara, if not the entire trip to Japan.
The next stop was Uji. Uji is a small town technically considered part of Kyoto, although I’m sure many people think of it as a stand alone area. The town of Uji is famous for 3 things. First, it is the origin of “The Tale of Genji” considered to be the world’s first true novel. The second thing Uji is famous for is Byodoin, one of the most famous temples in all of Kansai and the temple that is depicted on the back of the ten yen coin. The third thing Uji is famous for is the birthplace of matcha.
This is the reason I was coming to Uji. Not that I am not a fan of Genji, but as a green tea lover, this was my Mecca. For years I had dreamed of coming here and finally I had made it. The trip was not without its hiccups though. I ended up on the wrong train line and had to walk through rural farmland for about 40 minutes.
For those of you planning day trips around the city of Kyoto, I think my itinerary was fairly doable. I would even suggest adding Fushimi Inari, as it is on the same train line and if you are seeing it, you want to get there at 5:00 am anywhere before the tourists show up. Why not make a day of it and see Nara afterwards? You can then see Uji on the way there or the way back, depending on how much you are planning on seeing in Nara.
Although I had been playing up Uji in my head for years, it still was even cooler than I had expected. There were dozens of stores here dedicated to green tea. Walking down these streets was like stepping into a tea lover’s paradise. There were even occasional free samples to try. At the end of the street was the entrance to Byodoin, the famous temple of Uji. I paid the small entrance fee and walked inside.
This temple was pretty unusual compared to the other ones I was used to seeing. It was quiet large and in a pretty unusual spot. It sat in the middle of a green area gated off from the rest of the city. Sometimes I think they do this just to charge more for admission. The temple was a little bit disappointing, but I am glad I went to go see it because I don’t know when the next time I will make it to Uji is.
After leaving the temple grounds, I walked back through the market street, intent on picking up at least one tea as a gift for a friend or business partner. Luckily, I had a pocket wifi device so I was able to double-check where the companies source their tea from. Here’s a tea tip: a lot of companies will claim that the tea is from Uji, but in reality the tea is grown in Shizuoka and then brought to Uji for final packaging and blending. This is not just exclusive to tea, but the world of consumer products in general. If something from a certain region is more valuable, companies will try to find cheaper ways to claim origin to that location
Luckily I was able to find some teas that originated in Uji at a fairly reasonable price so I picked them up and put them into my backpack, already bursting with teas I had gotten mere hours earlier in Nara.
I then decided to take a stroll across the bridge over the Uji river. This bridge reminded me a lot of the Togetsukyo bridge, very simple with a traditional style to it. The real reason I was crossing the river was to get to the world’s oldest teahouse. This was another sacred pilgrimage site for me. Until today, I would’ve thought that the world’s oldest teahouse was in China, but in fact it is right here in Uji!
The Tsuen teahouse was established in 1160, making it almost 860 years old! I was surprised at how “normal” the inside of this teahouse was. People were just in here reading the paper or chatting with a friend. There was not much of a ceremonial or touristy element to the tea shop and the prices were actually average. I found myself wondering if I was in the right place! The people in here didn’t even seem to know they were in a place of such rich tea history, but perhaps they had been frequenting this establishment for so long that they were numb to its glory.
I had a beautiful kyusu filled with Hojicha and a tiny bit of mochi and decided to head out on my way. It was so amazing to be in here, a place that a year ago I could only dream about. As the sun began to set, I headed back across the bridge to catch the next train to Kyoto. I walked through the city as the sun was setting, thinking about how wonderful it was to be here. I had dreamed of coming to Uji for 3 years, and now I had finally gotten the chance to experience it first hand.
I needed to get my sleep that night because in the morning I would be embarking on my most ambitious day trip yet. I would be heading to Hiroshima and Itsukushima, on the furthest tip of the Island of Honshu. I was really testing the limits of my week of free bullet trains and trying to squeeze as much out as possible. It would be my biggest day trip, but also my most fun. I can’t wait to share it with you!