If you’re really into green tea, then you have to visit Uji – where green tea was first grown in Japan. Just 30 minutes or so south from Kyoto and you’re in another world – a world of green tea related everything!
Uji is where green tea is still grown and processed today. Most high end, respected tea companies have their production facilities here. But whether you like green tea or not – it is a visually charming town. The main omotesando street leading to Byodo-in temple is a nice stroll.
Uji also has ties to the Tale of Genji chronicles. There is a Genji museum and two statues overlooking the river of the romantic lovers from the tale. Uji does look like the place where an epic love story might take place.
In case you are unfamiliar with Matcha – matcha is green tea leaves that have been ground and sifted into a powder that then gets whisked into a bowl of hot water. High grade Matcha is what you will drink at a tea ceremony. It is not a steeped tea, but a frothy mixture where you drink the actual leaf itself. It is high in vitamin C, anti-oxidants and has many healing properties. Basically it’s good for you as most green things are but it does have caffeine, so it could replace coffee. Because of the powdered form and processing, you can’t keep matcha powder sitting on a shelf. Only the freshest leaves are desired and need to be used as soon as possible.
Along the way you will see ice cream shops that sprinkle matcha powder on their cones. Matcha flavored soba noodle shops, matcha tea sweets, cake, candy and anything you can imagine made of green tea.
The Byodo-in temple is not to be missed. It is a Buddhist temple from the pure land sect of buddhism. It houses a large statue of the buddha which is worth the extra 300 yen to get up close to see. The buddha looks out over a garden meant to bring to life the idea of the pure land that spirits can reach when they pass on into the next world. There is a museum included in the admission that is thoughtfully designed and shows you the hidden paintings and meanings of the symbols that appear in the temple. My favorite being the bodhisattvas on floating clouds, most playing an instrument of sorts that come to collect those who have followed a righteous path in life with some heavenly theme music I imagine. http://www.byodoin.or.jp
If you continue past the temple there is a public tea house you can stop in to experience a tea ceremony. Unfortunately there was a Sencha ceremony that day and we really wanted some matcha! Sencha is a steeped green tea. Bummer for us, they have matcha ceremony 90% of the time!
You can walk over some pedestrian bridges to the other side of the river for a nice view and to see the poor cormorant birds they use to fish with! Crazy. You will have to look up cormorant fishing on the internet, I’m too much of an animal lover to explain.
On the other side of the river you can visit the Fukujuen tea factory. Here you can taste tea in their cafe, try tea ceremony if you make a reservation, or take a workshop on making a tea bowl from a mold and other activities. We opted to grind tea leaves into fresh matcha powder. I’m sure they have machines that do this in the factory because it’s not easy! Grinding it by hand takes about 20 minutes and you get enough for two bowls of tea. But it’s exciting to try. Just to see the bright green powder start to appear makes your mouth water for a bowl. http://www.ujikoubou.com
Then they give you a bowl and a tea sweet – also made from tea of course – and instruct you on how to properly whisk a good bowl of matcha and also how to store it. Yuummm. Nothing can compare with the experience of making your own tea. Arms are sore, but it tastes amazing. Worth the effort.
Outside of Uji you can also take a free tour of our favorite tea company Marukyu-Koyamaen factory but they need 4 days reservation notice. http://www.marukyu-koyamaen.co.jp/english/
There are other temples, shrines and shops to see but we opted for traveling further afield to Gengi no yu. This bath house is hidden in a commercial and residential area, but it was one of our favorites. Not only do they have a great variety of baths, a sauna and steam room – but they also have a good restaurant. So all your dreams can come true. You can bathe, take a nap in their tatami relaxation room, or fall asleep in their awesome massage chair and then have a nice dinner. Why doesn’t this exist yet in the U.S.? Genius. http://genji-yu.jp/en/index.html