Visitors to Uji can appreciate the many references in The Tale of Genji to the terrible rushing waters of the Uji River. Even in its modern and rather tamed incarnation, it still leaves a deep impression as one crosses the long footbridge to reach Byodo-in.
This is the former site of the villa of Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027). The huge palace was converted to a temple in 1052, but the only surviving building is the Phoenix Hall (Hodo), which was completed in 1053. The centerpiece of the present site is the impressive Phoenix Hall situated on a small island in a pond. Little remains of other original garden features.
The symmetrical Phoenix Hall is a wonderful example of Heian style architecture, and the importance of this building is attested by its appearance on the back of every ten-yen coin. It is the oldest surviving building in a Western Paradise style garden. Western Paradise gardens flourished during the Heian period (785 - 1184), and other famous examples include Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) and Kinkaku-ji (the Gold Pavilion) in Kyoto. Western Paradise gardens are associated with the Jodo, or Pure Land, sect of Buddhism and are dedicated to Amidha Buddha.
The building came to be known as the Phoenix Hall during the early Edo period (1603 - 1867) due to its likeness to a phoenix spreading its wings. The wings of the building serve no practical use and are simply ornamental appendages, but they give the building balance and make it seem firmly situated. The pond (now much curtailed) which encircles the hall was once a diverted inlet of the Uji River. The Phoenix Hall itself is a wonder to behold, with its 1,000-year-old wood and vestiges of paint. The building would originally have been painted orange, and plans are under consideration to restore it.
One of the most exciting things about Byodo-in is the recent renovation of the shoreline in front of the Phoenix Hall based on archaeological excavations. A large-screen video monitor in the new museum shows clips of the work. When the pond was drained it was found that underneath the crude string of edging rocks and strip of grass which had long fronted the Phoenix Hall, there lay a lovely cobble beach sloping gradually and gracefully into the pond. The video of the restoration project shows workers laying wafers of clay on the bottom of the pond and pounding stones into it using wooden mallets and sledges.
Professor Nakamura Makoto of Kyoto University says archaeological evidence shows that all the grassy banks around the pond were also once similar cobble beaches, but unfortunately funds were not sufficient to complete the renovation all the way around the pond.
A fascinating new museum with gardens designed by landscape architect Miyagi Shun includes the original rooftop phoenix ornaments and many other original objects.
Although not much remains of the gardens of Byodo-in, the site is imbued with an aura of history. The sight of the ancient, eastward-facing Phoenix Hall with its elegant skirt of cobble beach grandly reflected in the pond is stunning indeed.
The spring rain
Which hangs to the branches
Of the green willow
Looks like pearls
Threaded on a string.
Lady Ise Kokinshû(?) trans. by Arthur Waley 9th century