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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Uji: Favored Spot of the Fujiwara


The country town of Uji is just a few kilometers from the southeastern part of Kyoto. Besides being a famous place for its temples, river-side scenery and quaint countryside homes and estates, Uji is the tea capital of Japan. Since Chinese tea plants were transplanted to Uji in the 12th century, Uji tea has always been considered the finest in the land. A short walk out of town in a easterly direction, you can see the low, dark-green tea bushes covering the landscape. May is when the first leaves of the year are picked and if you are lucky you might even get a cup of newly made tea. However, first and foremost on your stop in Uji should be the Byodo-in.

Uji: Favored Spot of the Fujiwara。

Byodo-in is a structure like no other in Japan and though you will find its image on every ¥10 coin in your pocket, it has to be experienced to be appreciated. The era that gave us this legacy of elegance and sophistication is rightly referred to as Japan's Golden Age. Golden for its cultural and social refinement and beauty, this period is even today thought by many to be Japan’s finest moment. Uji and its place on Japan's cultural map is largely due to the influence of one family, the Fujiwara. But it would be wrong to think of the Fujiwara as a family. Dynasty is much more appropriate for describing the power and influence they had over the country during the best years of the Heian Period (794-1197).

The Fujiwara Period (894-1185) was the height of elegance and sophistication in the arts and in the social sphere. Similar to the Edo Period, the Fujiwara Period was one of isolation from the rest of the world. Contact between Japan and Tang dynasty China slowed dramatically as the Heian Court system created for itself a culture that was surprisingly self-centered and closed off from the world around it.

Central to this era was the Fujiwara clan, who controlled the country through their role as imperial regents and by arranging marriages between their daughters and successive emperors. The men of the Fujiwara clan, aristocratic as they were, took great pleasure in guiding and manipulating the politics of their day. At the same time, the imperial court enjoyed themselves and gradually developed a lifestyle of decadence that in the end corrupted the entire system and allowed for the military class to seize control and move Japan's base of power to Kamakura. Greatest of the Fujiwara regents was Michinaga who in his time was "father-in-law to two emperors, grandfather to a third, grandfather and great-grandfather to a fourth, and grandfather-in-law to a fifth," as Ivan Morris wrote in his book The World of the Shining Prince.

Today, little remains of the Fujiwara legacy, perhaps because they devoted themselves to political power and not building temples. Byodo-in and Daigo-ji, both in the Uji area, are the two exceptions. In fact Byodo-in was built by Michinaga's son Yorimichi, who had the Fujiwara villa in Uji turned into a temple. Central to both Daigo-ji and Byodo-in is the Amida Buddha Hall, a type of building favored by many aristocrats of that era. The Amida was their ray of hope during the decadence and widespread pessimism of the later Fujiwara Period, when the Buddhist saints prophesied the world was entering Mappo, a dark and corrupt period. The Amida, the enlightened being of the Pure Land, promised the faithful entry to paradise and escape from Mappo. The Amida at Byodo-in is one of the few surviving statues of its kind in Japan today. Contained in a hall surrounded on four sides and above with lavish decorations done in lacquer, mother-of-pearl and gold leaf, the golden statue of Amida is seated in meditation, head surrounded by a magnificent golden halo of clouds and lesser deities.

Of equal beauty and greater fame is Byodo-in's Phoenix Hall, which graces Japan's ¥10 coin. With its two wooden wings built to perfect proportions, the central hall is an attempt to create the Pure Land Paradise of the Amida Buddha on earth. Reflected in the large pond in front of it, the Phoenix Hall is an esoteric structure that immediately brings to mind Chinese temples and tantric mandala symbols. The roof is topped with exquisite images of the Phoenix bird which again is a Chinese symbol and one rarely encountered in Japanese architectural details.

Uji: Favored Spot of the Fujiwara.

Byodo-in is today cut-off from a direct view of the Uji River, but that doesn't mean the river should be ignored. In fact the north side of the river is an integral part of Uji's charm and the location of many older homes, temples, shrines and restaurant inns. A walk along the river from Uji Sanjo station is particularly recommended during the daytime and even more so when the moon first rises above the eastern hills.

Six hundred years and some four or five kilometers down the road from Fujiwara's Uji lies the monastery of Mampukuji, which is one of the most unusual and exotically beautiful in Japan. The style is purely Ming. Established in 1661 in the hilly tea cultivation area outside of Uji by a Chinese high priest of the China’s Obaku Zen Sect, Mampukuji continued a tradition that started in China and was favored by the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately, the Manchus, who overthrew the Ming, felt otherwise. Luckily retired emperor Go-Mizuno'o and Shogun Ietsuna welcomed this head priest and allowed him to set up his fallen temple in Uji, which is remarkable because Japan was so tightly sealed to foreigners in the Edo Period (1603-1868).

For nearly the first 100 years after the temple was built, the head priest continued to be Chinese. What strikes you the moment you see the gate of this temple is the sharply upward curved lines of the roof, particularly at the corners. This detail alone should be enough to signal the extraordinary Chinese influence in the architecture. Once inside the gate you will notice much more: the red colored buildings, the black tiled floor, the broken swastika symbols used in the railings and elsewhere. A stroll around the grounds of Mampukuji is a rare treat and one that you are sure to remember for years to come.

Courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT). Ian Ropke, founder and owner of YJPT (since 1992), is a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579.

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