I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that you should go to the south side of Uji, from the railway station, should you decide to go there at all.
North side, wrong side of the tracks. Nothing to see there.
There is something to that, as with so many things that are said and supposedly known.
South from the railway station is the World Cultural Heritage of the Byodo-in temple and its Phoenix Hall.
With this major sightseeing spot – as well as others, but some of them were inaccessible when I visited as they are on an island in the nearby river, which ran high water – in that part of town, there are also many tourist-oriented venues all around there.
The Home of Matcha
You think you know anything about matcha, you should have heard of Uji.
Uji, near Kyoto, is the place where much matcha, and certainly the one considered among the best, comes from.
The home, consequently, to many a producer of matcha.
In those touristy parts, then, there is matcha store upon matcha store. But how do you decide where to go, then?
I almost missed going to Uji at all. It was just my wife reminding me of the chance to get matcha straight from the source that had me check out if or how I could manage to go there.
Turned out, the somewhat odd place – Fushimi district – I was staying for the first two nights in Kyoto lies in the direction of Uji. One of the train lines I could take to go to the hostel there was the same that went to Uji.
So I went there, too. In fact, I went there straight from an early morning visit to Osaka’s wholesale market, before even going to check in at my hostel.
It was still so early in the day, no stores were yet open.
The Byodo-in temple, a first of many World Cultural Heritage sites in the Kyoto area, was open already, though. So, there I went first.
I can highly recommend going everywhere you can in the area of the Byodo-in.
The Phoenix Hall requires an extra ticket (with the time to line up for entry printed on it, so try to catch a not-so-busy time, certainly don’t miss that time).
Shoes and other things are to be left outside, no photography or videos are permitted in the hall.
There is not much to see, mainly just the Buddha in the middle, but the architecture of that and the whole building really should be seen.
Then go on into the museum (that entry is included in the general Byodo-in ticket) and have a look at the wood carvings from the Phoenix Hall in more detail. They are quite worth it!
Nakamura Tokichi Honten
One place related to matcha that I did know to visit while in Uji, and on the south side, was Nakamura Tokichi Honten.
The original store (honten) of this maker of matcha lies right on the way from the railway station to the Byodo-in, so you will walk past it.
I know it because I (and my wife) have visited their Hong Kong-ten something like five times over two trips through Hong Kong…
As many matcha purveyors would turn out to have, they too offered special products only available in Uji (or Kyoto). I only went for their matcha jelly and ice cream, which was good as always. Here, it was served in a chilled piece of bamboo for an interesting touch.
Their menu included the warabi-mochi and soba with matcha I know from Hong Kong, many other things… but frankly, I felt that the Hong Kong store actually has a nicer selection.
The whole building – an original, traditional tea trader’s and matcha maker’s home and ‘factory’ – was very interesting to see, though. And the shop they have in a former store room just past the entrance is pretty well-stocked, and fascinatingly built, too.
The real reason I had come to Uji was to visit the matcha producer Marukyu Koyamaen… If it was there.
Places only Google Maps Shows
Factory tours are offered via their website, but I couldn’t quite figure out where exactly those would be. (Turned out, it would not have been far).
One has to set a date for those well in advance, though, and I would not have known beforehand when I would arrive, so I couldn’t have done one of those, anyways.
But, before I got to their location, I did not even know much more than what place Google Maps told me they should be located at.
On the “wrong” side of the tracks, in the northern part of Uji, in a place without anything of any tourist interest around… and with one place (the one marked with their name in English) labeling them as a “tour operator”…
All the way there, I wondered if the shop would really be there, and if it would really be a shop.
The area, anyways, turned out much more residential and lived-in than anything I had seen of Uji before. And interesting for that, too.
Too often, we end up only seeing what we expected and where everyone “has to go.”
A Matcha Store, *Not* for the Tourists
Well, Marukyu Koyamaen was there. Not the factory, but a shop as well as the original founder’s home.
It was utterly fascinating to be there.
This is not a tourist-oriented shop of products to grab. It is a small shop where only some of the wares on offer are being presented. I am tempted to say, represented.
To actually buy them, you don’t grab them off the shelf.
You get the list of the different types and sizes of matcha and the additional products they make.
You note down how many of which you want.
You hand over that request, and one of the assistants will get and pack it all for you.
I might have managed by myself, but got some help from the English-speaking colleague they could find for me – who, funnily, turned out to be a Chinese from Taiwan.
Let’s just say, an interesting conversation was had. The depths of matcha knowledge are something to be explored over on ChiliCult, though.
There were lots to learn besides matcha.
Not least, how going to the supposedly wrong side of the tracks, I think I “got at home” a bit more in Japan. Simply through this experience of buying matcha like a local…