nara & uji
Nara is definitely worth visiting as a daytrip out of Kyoto. It’s a sentiment that both locals and tourists share, judging by the huge mass of people descending the stairs to catch the train to Nara. The rickety train pulls in, we hop on and promptly pull out snack looted from the combini. The train journeys are half the fun in Japan. Nara’s an hour from Kyoto and on the way the landscape graduates from neat suburbia to bamboo forests leaning out, stretching to the sky.
Nara Park is vast and freely roamed by deer that are thought to be messengers of Shinto gods. The deer are super cute (kawaiii!) and crazy for the deer friendly senbei crackers that can be bought throughout the park. They nudge, stare and even nibble at you to get at the crackers.
Todaiji’s Daibutsuden hall is enormous – actually enormous is an understatement – it’s the largest wooden building in the world. (Fun fact: the current hall is two thirds the size of the original…) Like ants we are pulled to it by a touristy magnetic force. Within the hushed, incense filled haze, amulet stalls glow around the Great Buddha. Behind, locals are hilariously trying to squeeze themselves through a (very!) small hole in a pillar that’s said to be the size of the Buddha’s nostril. Apparently if you fit through, you earn a place in heaven (well there goes my chance).
With lunchtime beckoning, we board a train to Uji – a town I’ve been curious about since figuring out the ‘Uji’ on my favourite tea is actually a place! The first glimpse of Uji’s omotesando main street really took hold of me – a 100 metre lane of old tea traders, emblem flags flapping in the wind and green tea wafting from stone grinders making quick work of steamed leaves into matcha. Beyond, hills roll away in shimmering shades of green and gold.
Tea in Uji goes back nine centuries, so the shop in the photo above, at 180 years old, is a relative newcomer. Inside, patina stained, aged boxes full of tea leaves were being emptied, hand packed into smaller bags for sale. The smell of so much tea is incredible – the freshness from last years harvest, and warm, antique earthiness from the tea dust that’s settled everywhere from years gone by. Even though they couldn’t speak a word of English the owners were overwhelmingly hospitable. After a tasting I couldn’t refuse, I left with bags of paper wrapped (everything is gift wrapped in Japan!) gyokuro and genmaicha (green tea with roasted rice), which I’m still drinking today.
We packed in with the locals at Nakamura Tokichi for lunch. First up, toothy green tea soba in a simple broth of dashi served with two pieces of amazing aburaage. Oily and impervious to the soup, every bite was intensely sweet with soy, sugar and fat – a satisfying contrast to the watery soup. Next up was warabi mochi: soft jellies of bracken starch coated in bright green matcha. Drizzled with brown sugar syrup the jellies were wet yet tongue drying. The second dessert, the matcha jelly, is ordered by absolutely everyone and every table (when in Rome…). Bitter matcha ice cream, sweet red bean paste and chewy sugary rice balls, plus melt in the mouth matcha jelly, it was bittersweet yet heavenly. Akin to crack for green tea addicts.
Talking about addiction I just had to have one more fix. We found it at a small shop close to the 10 yen coin famous Byodo-in temple. Green tea soft serve dusted with – yes you guess it – matcha!
One hour from Kyoto by either JR or Kintetsu train. The Kintetsu station is closer to the park. However to see the whole park of museums, temples and shrines bring walking shoes or catch the loop shuttle bus.
There are two branches – the riverside and the original (honten). Both are store/cafes but the honten is much closer to the JR station – handy for a quick shopping and/or eating stop. Buy the matcha – it’s amazingly high quality.
150 year old tea trader on Byodo-in Omotesando. Free tea tastings and really friendly service in an old fashioned shop.
A more touristy but modern tea shop with beautifully wrapped teas – perfect for gifting.
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