It's common to associate Uji City with just green tea when one brings up it's name. Being one of the earliest site for tea cultivation in Japan, you could also say that tea itself has overshadowed a lot of what Uji has to offer in other ways, particularly in terms of sightseeing with it's rich culture and history. Being sandwiched in between two great, ancient cities of Japan in Kyoto and Nara, Uji feeds off a lot of their influences to become a destination that can truly stand on its own. This article is an example of what a day trip to Uji City looks like courtesy of my experience.
Taking a train to Uji is extremely convenient. The city can be accessed through both the JR and Keihan lines, though both stations are situated on either sides of the Uji River. From Kyoto, it's as easy as taking the JR Nara Line for about 20 minutes. From Osaka, as there is no single, direct line to Uji, one will have to take either a JR Line to Kyoto or the Keihan main line to Chushojima Station and then change to the Keihan-Uji Line, both of which takes about the same time of about an hour.
Upon exiting the JR Uji Station, you will realize that there's not much going around the immediate vicinity of the station. That's because you are not in the area where the cluster of attractions lie.
Heading further down the street right in front of the station will bring you to a small little shopping district where cafes, restaurants and omiyage stores line up the street. Since this is actually the edge of where all the activity in Uji happens, it is possibly the best place to start your day trip as you make your way down to cover the rest of what the City has to offer. As this is the street that leads all the way down to the entrance of the World Heritage Site Byodoin, why not start the day off with some brunch/lunch? Some of the omiyage stores also act as a restaurant further inside their outlet, so while taking your time to grab a few specialty gifts, you can also grab a bite at the same time.
As you walk your way down to the approach to Byodoin, even more cafes, restaurants and specialty store line the path up to the site. You will also observe that you have reached one side of the bridge that traverses Uji River.
And then comes the biggest attraction of Uji, the Byodoin. Originally built in 998, the place is initially built as a reclusive retreat for a politician back in the times. It was only turned into a temple 45 years later which included the now iconic Phoenix Hall that can be seen on the back of today's 10yen coin. Entrance into the sanctuary costs 600yen, and while the cost includes gaining entry into Byodoin, exploring the Phoenix Hall itself costs another 300yen. Personally, I would also recommend taking time to visit the Honshokan Museum, which houses some of the most valuable treasures that Byodoin possesses.
Bridges form a big part of Uji as it connects the eastern and western side of the city together in which the Uji River intersects. As such, the river itself is also an integral part of the life of an Uji resident. Right by the river bank of Byodoin lies an island connected by bridges on wither sides of the river. Named Tachibanajima, this island serves as a recreational ground for the local community. The island offers a view of Uji with a different perspective. On the island, you will also come across little sheltered pens that houses cormorants. Every summer, visitors are able to participate in boat rides that go for cormorant fishing during the evening.
On the opposite of the river, a host of shrines and temples fill up the banks of this side of the river. Koshoji and Ujigami Shrine stands out in particular, with the former being the first independent zen temple in Japan with an approach lined up with maple trees that light up a fiery red during the fall, while the latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance as a guardian shrine to the Byodoin and thus, could arguably be one of the oldest shrine in Japan to be built in 1060AD.
Following the path right past the Ujigami Shrine leads you to the Tale of Genji Museum. The museum honours the story as probably the first novel in the world, with models and exhibits that enacts the scenes of some of the story that is based with Uji. If that is not your thing though, the entrance to the museum is still a great place to take a leisurely stroll as the colours of the trees and flowers change with the seasons.
As the afternoon comes to an end and evening approaches, I would also recommend taking a hike up Daikichiyama just behind the Ujigami shrine. On the way up the mountain, you will reach an observation deck that opens up a view to the vast city of Uji and beyond. As the observation deck is facing west, it is probably one of the best places in Uji to enjoy the sunset and dusk colours as night falls. Do be mindful though that there are no street lights throughout the mountain, so it is best advised to either head down the mountain earlier before the sunlight is out or be prepared with flashlights or mobile phones with flash on them.
That will be a typical day trip to Uji that took a leisurely 7-8 hours to complete with no rush in between any of the highlights. Hopefully this will inspire some of you to explore and experience the cultural significance of Uji, another facet to the prefecture that the hustle and bustle of downtown Kyoto won't get.