The scent of tea infuses the air with its light, grassy aroma. Quaint wooden teahouses line the riverbanks, interspersed with ancient shrines and picturesque temples. This town is so steeped in green tea, it wouldn’t even exist without it. Welcome to Uji.
Whether it’s the tea, the temples or The Tale of Genji that brings you to Uji, the town’s close proximity to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka makes it a perfect day trip from any of these cities. Its compact layout means all the main attractions are within walking distance of the train station and each other. This leaves you with plenty of time to sit back on the tatami and enjoy the subtle fragrance of tea in the air and the sound of the river gently flowing past. Here’s our guide on how to explore this tea-soaked town.
A short history and overview of tea in Uji
Uji was one of the first places in Japan to cultivate green tea. One thousand years later, the tea produced here is still regarded as among the best in the world. Its secret lies in the quality of its soil, the suitability of its climate, and the town’s convenient location just south of the social and economic powerhouse of Kyoto city.
Matcha may be the best-known variety of Japanese green tea overseas; however, as well as the tencha leaves used to make it, Uji grows two other types of green tea: sencha and gyokuro. The first is a fresh, vegetal tea for everyday drinking, while the latter is considered to be the highest grade of green tea in Japan.
Tencha and gyokuro leaves are shaded for around 20 days before harvesting, resulting in a lower tannin content. This gives the tea a less astringent, sweeter taste with a distinctive umami flavour vastly different to regular green tea. The resident tea masters at Uji’s teahouses are happy to talk you through the cultivation process, the unique features of the different tea varieties, as well as demonstrating how to make the perfect pot of each one.
Left: Travellers can learn how to pick tea leaves in Uji | Right: Uji tea shop | Left: Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo | Right: Tuul and Bruno Morandi / Alamy Stock Photo
Enjoy green tea soba and ice cream from a local café
Japanese green tea is usually served with small, exquisitely decorated sweets as a way to balance the bitterness of the drink. If you find yourself wanting something more substantial, however, drop into one of the many cafés or restaurants on Omotesando shopping street. Like everything else in Uji, their menus are suffused with tea, from savoury dishes such as green tea-flavoured soba noodles, to sweet treats like green tea ice cream.
To really bring Uji’s history and culture to life, take part in a traditional tea ceremony at one of the many local teahouses. This gives you the chance to taste some of the town’s best matcha tea, while also learning about the drink’s history and etiquette. The 200-year-old Nakamura Tokichi teahouse offers the chance to grind your own tea leaves for the ceremony, before enjoying both thick koicha and thin usucha matcha tea in an authentic tatami mat tearoom. Reservations are required, but can be made online in English.
Arriving by train, you’ll find yourself close to Uji Bridge, which dates all the way back to around 646. Particularly beautiful during the spring cherry blossom season, when the ethereal pink and white flowers burst into fleeting bloom, the bridge and adjacent riverbanks make a great place to walk and get acquainted with the town. The river flowing beneath it cuts Uji neatly in two, both sides adorned with overhanging teahouse balconies that give way to forested mountains behind.
Over the years, Uji Bridge has been featured in numerous works of Japanese art and literature. The most notable of these is the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji, whose final chapters are set in Uji. A classic and poetic tale of courtly intrigue, there are subtle statues and plaques marking locations that feature in the book scattered throughout the town. Fans of the work can also head to the Tale of Genji Museum, just a short walk east from the bridge, which brings different scenes from the story to life through models and dioramas.
Wander down the narrow, bustling Omotesando to pick up some varieties of tea and other trinkets. As well as the tea itself, you can find elegant teapots and cups, traditional matcha whisks and tea trays, and all the other utensils you’ll need to bring the Japanese tea ceremony home with you.
At the other end of Omotesando, you’ll encounter Uji’s shining star, Byodoin Temple, whose stunning Phoenix Hall was chosen to be featured on one side of Japan’s ¥100 coin. A vision of red and gold with two phoenix statues adorning its dark grey roof, the intricate structure is said to resemble a bird spreading its wings. The temple gardens are a pleasure to stroll around, with the ornate hall reflected in the large pond at its centre and the scent of incense drifting through the air. There’s also a large underground museum to explore, filled with Buddhist artworks and artefacts from the temple, and – of course – a teahouse.
If you only have time for one temple on your trip, Byodoin is definitely the one to go for. However, if you can squeeze in any more, Uji has plenty to offer. Mimurotoji, also known as the Flower Temple, is about a 20-minute walk north from Uji Bridge. Its vast gardens burst with different seasonal flowers, from delicate cherry blossoms in spring to thousands of colourful hydrangea in summer and fiery red and orange leaves in autumn. Keep an eye out for the bull statue within the grounds – inside its mouth is a stone ‘jewel’ that is said to bring good luck to those who reach in and touch it.
As well as Buddhist temples, Uji is also home to some important Shinto shrines. Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion, and it is believed that gods, known as kami, live within these shrines. Ujigami Shrine, on the east side of Uji River, is thought to be the oldest standing shrine in Japan. The unassuming wooden building dates back to at least 1060, and was originally Byodoin’s guardian shrine. Just 100 metres (328 feet) south of it stands its partner, Uji Shrine, a vivid contrast in bright red and white.