Fresh from my Taiwan trip last November, I barely had time to empty out my bags before I needed to pack them again – this time for a relaxing autumn family trip to Japan’s Kansai region.
We arrived in Ōsaka on the 19th, but that day was pretty much lost as our flight got into KIX fairly late in the day. The real fun began on the morrow, when my parents and I went on a day trip to the historic city of Uji, in Kyōto Prefecture.
This was my sixth time in Japan but my first in Uji, so even though Kansai as a whole was familiar territory to me, I couldn’t help but feel excited. It had been just a couple of months since restoration work was completed at the city’s main attraction, the 1,000-year old main hall of Byōdō-in – an officially designated National Treasure of Japan and one of the finest surviving examples of Heian-era architecture. Indeed, at Uji’s main railway station…
…the ceiling was festooned with banners celebrating the completion of the project.
But enough about that – let’s head on over there to see the results for ourselves.
The way to Byōdō-in was well signposted, starting with a massive decorative arch not far from the station.
Downtown Uji was quite similar to other small urban centres I’d seen on my previous visits to the country. Quiet, immaculately well kept, architecturally dominated by low-rise concrete modernity…
…made interesting by the occasional touch of traditional craftsmanship.
We soon arrived at a stone-paved path leading to Byōdō-in’s main entrance, which was rapidly filling with crowds even at this relatively early hour.
A large stone column on one side of the path gave the temple’s name in Japanese (平等院).
The autumn colours on the trees flanking the path were in varying stages of development. Some were still mostly green, their leaves merely tinged along the edges with a deepening hint of orange, whilst others were already ablaze in full fall finery.
600 yen got us through the entrance. Coming in from the side, we made our way past trees and auxiliary structures before coming face to face with one of Japan’s architectural masterpieces.
Byōdō-in’s main feature is the Amitabha Hall, more popularly known as the Phoenix Hall, a striking piece of Heian-era artistry that seems to float lightly upon the pond that surrounds it. The building’s sheer antiquity makes it all the more impressive: erected in 1053, mere decades after Murasaki Shikibu‘s lifetime, this delicate wooden structure – which seems so fragile that one might easily imagine it being torn to pieces by a winter storm – has survived virtually intact through centuries of wind, rain, and vicious warfare.
The hall is featured prominently on Japan’s 10-yen coin, so of course I couldn’t resist taking this next shot.
I even remember seeing oversized cardboard versions of the coin being sold in a shop just outside the Byōdō-in-compound – no doubt to make snapshots like this one easier to capture.
The central hall was of course the highlight of the temple complex, but the grounds were also good for a pleasant stroll, especially with some of the trees starting to change into their autumn colours.
Some of Byōdō-in’s finest – and also most fragile – treasures have been evacuated into the safety of a splendid on-site museum, built partly into (and concealed by) a hill so as not to compete with the nearby Phoenix Hall.
Photography is strictly forbidden inside so I can’t show you more, but trust me when I say that you shouldn’t give this place a miss. The artefacts displayed there are truly impressive, and the museum interiors are quite beautifully designed. And if even that fails to entice you, consider the fact that it’s already included in the price of the entrance ticket – so might as well get your money’s worth. (^_^)
There’s also a rest area up top (complete with the usual souvenir shop) where tired visitors can take some weight off their feet.
After taking in the sights at Byōdō-in, we stepped out for a relaxing stroll along the southern bank of the Uji River.
Apart from Byōdō-in, Uji is also known for its green tea, so we headed over to a riverside tourist information centre in order to purchase tickets for the Taihoan public tea house. Unfortunately, our timing was off (no green tea was being served on that day) so we decided to head back downtown for lunch.
Along the way, I did manage to get a little taste of green tea … though not exactly in its traditional form.
I also enjoyed a splendid lunch at one of Uji’s oldest and finest restaurants, but let’s leave that for a separate food report.