Visiting Uji & Nara, Japan - Travel Guide And Things To Do

Uji and Nara offer something different from other cities in Japan that make them standout destinations. They're more inherently relaxed, which can be a refreshing change of pace from the busy tourist hotspots in Osaka and Kyoto.

Visiting Uji & Nara, Japan - Travel Guide And Things To Do
© Nicklaus Walter

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We'd already had a taste of modern life in Osaka for a few days, and enjoyed a mix of new and old in Kyoto for a couple more. Yet as our journey through Japan was coming to a close, my wife and I were looking forward to slowing down a bit for our last two days in the country I had dreamed of visiting for as long as I can remember. Our final day trips consisted of checking out two smaller cities that are world renowned for very different things. We spent a full day in Uji and an all too brief afternoon in Nara.

I knew very little about both places going in, and as a result I didn't have any real expectations of how the trips should play out. While it's generally nice to know about a new city beforehand, occasionally it's even better to be pleasantly surprised at what awaits. I liken it to opening a mysterious and beautifully wrapped gift box, albeit with a little more risk involved. In this case neither city disappointed, so let's dive into why you absolutely need to add both Uji and Nara to your bucket list.

© Nicklaus Walter

Visiting Uji

From the moment I stepped off the train platform on that crisp sunny morning, I knew I was going to like Uji. With a much more modest population of roughly 185,000 residents, Uji has the lovely small town Japanese vibe that I've seen in anime cartoons for decades but wasn't sure whether it was real or not. Think lush green mountains, turquoise river water, beautiful traditional architecture, and plenty of room to wander at any time of day without the congestion of mass tourism. To my surprise that feeling really does exist. It turns out that you just have to venture outside of the big cities to encounter it, and you can find it in Uji as I've discovered. This quiet city has a much slower pace than Kyoto or Osaka which was really appealing, as it allowed me to take stock of my new surroundings and appreciate the moment that I was in, while it was happening.

I was immediately taken by the walkable main shopping streets that were home to plenty of specialty shops, restaurants, bakeries, and teahouses. Not to suggest that every business is locally owned, but nothing seemed cookie-cutter or overrun by franchises like in larger cities. The environment was laid back and the friendly shop owners were always welcoming us with their warm smiles. It was here that we bought the majority of the gifts for our loved ones, in part because the city is most famous for its Uji Matcha. This highly regarded powdered green tea is prized by the Japanese for it's superior quality and is equally loved all over the world. The local shops offer a seemingly an endless variety of rare products based on Uji Matcha, including matcha chocolate, matcha ice cream, matcha wine, matcha bread, matcha donuts, and the list goes on. You can easily find a unique gift or souvenir here, and many places will allow you to shop tax free with a passport. Be sure to get the Wise Visa debit card prior to your trip so that you'll be able to avoid any currency conversion fees and pay in Japanese Yen natively with your bank card.

© Nicklaus Walter

It goes without saying that the people of Uji take green tea very seriously here. Although I've had amazing tea in China, I was instantly able to appreciate how special the matcha or Uji-cha tea is in the region. At gift shops and teahouses, you can find a wide range of matcha from extremely bitter to slightly sweet, depending on your flavor preferences. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon the Kataoka Uji flagship cafe for some tea and light snacks. I ordered a hot matcha green tea along with a small red bean paste filled cake, and was taken aback by how perfectly the two paired with each other. This was an eye opening experience for me because the Uji Matcha beverage was quite bitter but with a creamy texture, while the red bean paste cake had just enough sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the green tea. I enjoyed both simultaneously and I've never had two opposing flavours balance so perfectly together. It was a moment of pure bliss! I also appreciated that the cake was a small portion, as I could easily overeat something so rich and tasty.

After getting a modest dose of caffeine and sugar from that lovely Uji-cha and red bean cake, we made our way over to the nearby Byodoin Temple which is one of the many World Heritage Sites on display in Japan. The temple has stood for nearly 1,000 years and is famous for its Phoenix Hall, which is the main building that showcases two statues of the Chinese Phoenix on the roof. The structure itself is simply beautiful in its symmetry, and the museum on the grounds is well worth a visit to learn about the rich and fascinating history of the Byodoin Temple. I enjoyed my time there more than any other temple visit I've had in Japan so far. Walking along the temple grounds was such a peaceful experience without the feeling of being rushed or cramped by other tourists. You'll definitely want to make some time for the Byodoin Temple if you come to Uji.

© Nicklaus Walter

On a random note, while enjoying a matcha ice cream cone from a nearby shop we discovered that Uji has the most beautiful Starbucks I've ever seen. Just an absolutely stunning building. The architecture is minimal and modern with huge floor to ceiling glass windows, vaulted ceilings, and a wonderful garden view to enjoy. If you need another reason to check it out, they have matcha cream donuts there!

It was time to find a place to eat for a late afternoon lunch, and we happened to come across another hidden gem called Hakodate Ichiba Keihan Uji, which is a conveyer belt sushi restaurant. They had some interesting options to try such as burger sushi and corn sushi, but I fell in love with the fatty salmon and mackerel sushi. It was hands down the most satisfying sushi I've tried to date, and the friendly restaurant staff made for a comfortable environment to enjoy. Be sure to stop by if you're in the mood for a deliciously distinct take on something familiar.

All in all, Uji was a genuine highlight of our trip to Japan and I would've loved to spend more time there. As we walked along the scenic Uji River, my wife and I even fantasized about living there for a while. It has just the right pace, beauty, and connectivity via the train station to be a great place to call home. I hope to go back one day, at least to visit.

Visiting Nara

We didn't get to spend nearly as much time in Nara as I would've liked, but the brief moments we had there were unforgettable. We were on a mission to see the deer at Nara Park and it absolutely delivered. If you haven't heard of Nara Park before, it's a large and beautiful green space which is famous for the numerous wild deer that inhabit it. It's one of the oldest parks in Japan, and worth visiting not only for the deer but also because it includes the impressively large Todaiji Temple as well as Nara National Museum all within the park grounds.

While we have plenty of wild deer back home in Victoria BC, the experience in Nara was quite different. At Nara Park you can get up close and personal with the deer who aren't startled or frightened by humans whatsoever. It's easy to get close to the deer because they're always expecting food from tourists, and you can purchase special crackers in the park to feed them. The most adorable gesture I witnessed was seeing the deer consistently bow for food. You know you're in Japan when even the wildlife are polite!

© Nicklaus Walter

One thing to note is that these are indeed wild deer, and they can be unintentionally aggressive when it comes to food. If the deer notice that you have an entire bag full of crackers, you'll be swarmed by several of them within seconds. While it isn't dangerous, it can be an unnerving encounter especially if you haven't had a lot of exposure to wildlife. With that in mind, it's best to take out one or two crackers at a time to keep those adorable creatures reasonable and sane.

While our time spent in Nara was fleeting, it will be ingrained in our memories whenever we think back to our adventures in Japan. You've never had an intimate wildlife encounter quite like this. The entire city is beautiful, and will surely put a smile on your face. Getting to the park on foot is easy with only a twenty minute walk from the JR Nara Train Station. This is the main train line with a direct 45 minute ride from Kyoto Station or a 50 minute ride from Osaka Station.

Uji and Nara offer something different from other cities in Japan that make them standout destinations. They're more inherently relaxed, which can be a refreshing change of pace from the busy tourist hotspots in Osaka and Kyoto. With how convenient it is to get to both places from the larger cities that you're likely to go to anyway, adding Uji and Nara to your itinerary is something you won't regret.

© Nicklaus Walter

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