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Every country reminisces about its golden age -- a romantic era in the past, some sort of social and cultural peak. Many Japanese look back to the Heian period (794-1195) as that time in their country's history, and the town of Uji near Kyoto is especially evocative of that time, even today. Standing on a bright red bridge over the stormy Uji River, it's easy to imagine dragon-headed pleasure boats filled with Japanese nobles plying its waters, to the accompaniment of flute and song … and perhaps splashes of flowing sake. 

Today, a 30-minute ride on the Nara Line from Kyoto Station takes one through the urban sprawl of Japan’s sixth-biggest city before arriving at the city of Uji, now a residential suburb of its big neighbor to the north. Though these trains are packed with rush-hour commuters who think nothing of the short journey from Kyoto, a millennium ago Uji was a long day’s journey from what was then the nation’s capital. Uji was regarded as a remote and mysterious place, wild and windswept. By the ninth century, literature shows that the misty beauty of Uji's mountains and river appealed to courtiers in the imperial capital of Kyoto. Since a trip to Uji was a long day’s journey, aristocrats built villa retreats along Uji's riverbanks. 

The temple of Byodo-in was originally one such villa. Although Kyoto was the celebrated capital of the heavily Chinese-influenced Heian period, Byodo-in is the best example of the few surviving Heian-era buildings — none of which are in Kyoto! Today, Byodo-in is rightly considered one of the finest architectural wonders in the country, and is certainly the jewel in Uji’s crown of cultural appeal. 

The late eleventh century saw a surge in the popularity of Amida, the Buddha of the Pure Land. Radically egalitarian, Amida was reputed to save anyone who sincerely invoked his name. Consequently, the powerful Heian regent Fujiwara no Yorimichi converted an aristocratic villa on the shores of the Uji River into a temple for Amida, and renamed it Byodo-in, "The Temple of Equality." In 1053, the famed Phoenix Hall was added to create an architectural mandala -- basically, a three-dimensional depiction of Buddhist paradise. Now only the Phoenix Hall remains from the Heian-era buildings, as most of the complex burned down in a 1336 military battle. Gracing the back of the ¥10 coin, the majestic Phoenix Hall is one of Japan's most famous buildings. 

Though a phoenix figurine graces the roof, this building is named instead for its shape: If seen from above, the hall's wings stretch out like a graceful phoenix soaring over the Western Ocean in Amida’s paradise. With no oceans nearby, this symbolic phoenix has to make do with a more modest pond ... but you still get the idea. In a surprising triumph of form over function, the Phoenix Hall's wings are purely ornamental, with ceilings only a few feet high.

This temple’s greatest treasure is the impressive statue of Amida Buddha inside the Phoenix Hall, also dating to the 11th century. Even to non-Japanese in the twenty-first century, Amida’s countenance radiates compassion and tranquility. The magnificently carved halo around Amida’s head is set off by delightful sculptures of small heavenly beings floating on clouds -- some resting in meditation, others dancing in ecstasy or playing celestial music. 

Another striking feature of Phoenix Hall is the open window gracing the façade. While it's likely that only the upper echelons of favored Heian aristocrats could enter the hall, the window is located so that others could gaze upon the peaceful visage of Amida Buddha from across the pond. Since stiff Heian hierarchy determined even the kinds of clothes aristocrats of different ranks could wear, this must have been a radical gesture of magnanimity. "That's why it's named, 'The Temple of Equality,'" emphasizes says Sadayo Nakamura, in charge of the offices that manage Byodo-in’s worldly affairs today. "This reflects how Amida Buddha’s compassion radiates towards all beings equally."

Some 700,000 tourists visit Byodo-in every year. Though there are many architecture and history buffs, most visitors seem to be uniformed Japanese schoolchildren, who pour out of buses to add playful laughter to Byodo-in’s solemn grandeur. Thronging in front of Phoenix Hall for group snapshots, some proffer the ubiquitous two-finger “peace” sign beloved to photo-posing Japanese, while others proffer the back of the ¥10 coin, for a “double Byodo-in” effect. 

In 1994 Byodo-in was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO, as was the Heian-era Ujigami Shinto shrine, just a short walk across the vermilion Asagiri ("Morning Mist") bridge. Though less spectacular than Byodo-in, it gives a fine sense of the tranquil power of the ancient tradition of Shinto, Japan’s native animistic form of spiritual worship. 

The stroll between the two ancient buildings takes one along curved, shaded paths, shared with eager history buffs and lovers of all ages. At times lined with charming shops and cafés or hugging the wooded mountainside, the paths are occasionally accentuated with markers about local culture and history. A number of these celebrate the final ten chapters of what is widely regarded as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century. Known as the “Uji chapters,” people have speculated about where the fictional events in these chapters may have taken place for hundreds of years. Ten of the markers throughout central Uji indicate the alleged settings for the Uji-based amorous adventures and trials of Kaoru, Genji’s supposed son. 

Uji as depicted in Genji is a melancholy place, prone to tempestuous winds amidst a lonesome wilderness. Though Uji was a long day's trip from Kyoto for most people of the day, Kaoru met his Uji lovers after a heart-pounding, hard-night's gallop. Contrastingly, the relatively unspoiled natural surroundings and careful cultural cultivation of Uji’s central area nowadays lends the town a sleepy, pastoral loveliness, unusual in this fast-pasted country. But on an overcast winter day, one can imagine Kaoru’s forlorn loves, as the waters of the Uji seem to run gray and wind sweeps down from the mountains. 

Uji is proud of its role in this masterpiece of world literature, and has created a small but attractive Tale of Genji Museum to help visitors get to know the world of Genji better. It even re-creates a life-sized version of one of the most famous scenes from the Uji chapters. 

Many of the things that we commonly associate with Japanese culture today -- sushi, tatami mats, flower arranging -- were unknown in Heian Japan. Green tea was another. Although it was imported to Japan from T’ang China for use as a medicine, green tea was not cultivated in Japan until the Chinese Zen priest Eisai brought tea seeds into Japan at the end of the twelfth century. Uji offered a mild climate and good soil combined with proximity to the capital, and tea was first cultivated here at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The country’s nobility plus military and spiritual leaders savored Uji tea (commoners weren’t allowed to drink tea until the Meiji period, in 1868), drunk as powdered matcha in tea ceremonies until sencha tea emerged from Uji in the 1600s. Four centuries later, Uji tea is used for a lot more than sipping: the downtown streets are lined with shops offering a cornucopia of green tea treats. Green tea ice cream, legions of tea cakes, and a mind-boggling assortment of green-tea candies tempt tea fans and culinary explorers. 

Uji tea reached its zenith in Japan's Middle Ages, according to Hiroyuki Kikai, a seventh-generation tea vendor at the tea shop Jishima-ya, established in 1827. He recounts how military strongman Tokugawa Ieyasu once escaped to Uji with sword wounds, and was nursed back to health by tea farmers. Ieyasu subsequently went on to become the first of a long line of mighty Tokugawa shoguns, doing much to shape the development of Japanese history and culture. “In thanks to the tea farmers who healed him, he raised up Uji tea. So Uji worked hard to make the best tea in the country, and it was transported up to Edo once a year with a daimyo escort,” explains Kikai. According to local lore, even regional nobles on the road felt they had to give way to the procession transporting the shogun’s tea. 

Needless to say, times have changed. Today Shizuoka Prefecture near Tokyo and the southern island of Kyushu produce significantly greater quantities of green tea than Uji, with Uji production ringing in at about 52 tons of tea a year. Visitors to Uji no longer see the mountainsides all around the city covered in the tidy rows upon rows of tea bushes. “There are no texts for teaching people about how to discern quality tea leaves, and our tools are just our nose, eyes, and tongue. You have to be raised learning it, it’s a generational thing,” Kikai relates over a small cup of karigane green tea, which he drinks in one go like a shot of espresso. Sitting at the enormous pine counter of his tea shop’s 150-year old building, he voices concerns that his own kids are more interested in the internet than carrying on the tea business. 

Nonetheless, Uji tea is still considered the finest in the country, largely because all Uji tea is made from only the season’s first and best crop of tea leaves, whereas other areas have up to four crops. As tea ceremony aficionados know, all matcha powdered tea used in sado (literally, “the way of tea”) tea ceremonies comes from Uji, as only Uji tea is of high enough quality. 

In Jishima-ya, Kikai’s shop, tea names are poetic, ranging from the likes of “Morning Mist” and “Phoenix,” to the more literary “Floating Bridge of Dreams” and “Fair Thousand Years.” Jishima-ya also offers two kinds of “imperial” tea, ringing in at ¥10,000 for a 135-gram container. Some 40 years ago, Emperor Hirohito was given some of this superior tea to drink as he was traveling through Uji, and granted his permission to henceforth call it imperial tea. “It’s extremely difficult to make, it takes tremendous knowhow,” Kikai says, noting that the tea’s packaging is the same as that presented to the emperor. 

Uji’s colorful history as a romantic hideaway for esthete Japanese aristocrats contrasts dramatically with the discipline and austerity of monks’ lives at Obaku-Mampuku temple, though both have in common the strong influence of Chinese culture. Mampuku-ji was founded by Ingen, formerly the eminent head monk of a Zen temple in southern China. When the Manchus toppled the Ming dynasty, Ingen came to Japan. The shogun and retired emperor were so impressed with his teaching that they made an exception to the period policy banning foreigners from living and traveling throughout Japan, and gave him imperial land in Uji to build Mampuku temple in 1661. 

Ingen constructed his temple in the Ming style, and for 200 years thereafter, the abbots continued to be Chinese. This was all during Japan’s period of self-imposed isolation from the outside world (1641–1855), so the Chinese influence made Mampuku temple extremely foreign and exotic to the Japanese. 

Master Ingen was known for his rigid, literal interpretation of the Buddhist precepts, and was known to carry a large stick. But Ingen’s influence in Japan clearly extended way beyond the threat of a good thrashing. A close look around Mampuku temple reveals a variety of Chinese architectural and design details. There are Chinese zig-zag patterns in the wooden railings, Chinese lanterns, round “moon” windows, and sharply curved eaves on the rooves. Statues of the Buddha and Buddhist saints are also much more Central Asian in appearance, unusual even today. 

“The Chinese monks introduced a lot of culture to Japan: medical treatments, sencha tea, fucha ryori cuisine, and Chinese-style chanting of sutras,” says Zenoh Kita, a monk who trained at Mampuku and now lives at Ryuko-in, one of Mampuku’s numerous subtemples nearby. He happily gives a demo of one of the many sutras he has memorized in Chinese, or something like it — he concedes that the Japanized pronunciation may have rendered it totally unintelligible to Chinese speakers. 

As Kita mentions, the sencha infused tea ceremony is one of the Chinese monks’ most famous cultural “imports” into Japan. Sencha is a steamed, rolled green leaf tea commonly drunk today, but it was novel when first introduced to seventeenth century Japanese aristocrats, who only drank powdered matcha. The sencha tea ceremony is called senchado ("the way of sencha"), and the headquarters of the All-Japan Senchado Association are here at Manpuku. Twice a year, the association holds large-scale tea ceremonies here for followers, facilitating a kind of pilgrimage to the senchado homeland. 

Mampuku-ji is also known for its delicious fucha-ryori cuisine, Chinese-influenced vegetarian repast made since the 1600s for the monks; They not only abstained from meat and fish, but from strong tastes like onions and garlic as well. The way the cuisine is eaten was as revolutionary as the flavor of the food. “The Chinese monks introduced the tradition of eating at large tables and serving people from the same large dish, as a way to bond socially. Before then Japanese people always ate with their own small table in front of them, each person with their own dishes,” Kita relates. Now a subtemple inside Mampuku and an exquisitely appointed restaurant just outside the main gate allow tourists to savor this taste of Zen mind too. 

Time has been kind to Uji: though the late Heian period is sometimes described as decadent, and Genji’s Uji as melancholy, today the decadence has given way to elegance, and the melancholy to bucolic beauty. In the fast pace of modern Japan, an outing to Uji ensures fresh breezes off verdant mountains and the quiet roar of the Uji River's stormy waters. Gaze south, where the twists in the river are hidden by lush mountainsides, and you may sense the dragon-headed pleasure boats of the Heian nobles about to emerge to the sounds of flute and song, as they must have a millennium ago.


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