源氏物語: Genji Monogatari Stamp Rally

Today was an adventure! Uji was holding its annual Genji Monogatari Stamp Rally, so Nicky and I headed over to Uji for the fun, the matcha and the typhoon!

On Friday this week, I went down to Kyoto Station to attend a drinking party with my friend Wada-san. He wanted me to meet a few of the other KPIC volunteers, so while Nicky was at work, we went to a famous oden (a specialty type of food) restaurant. During the party, Wada-san was reminded that he had picked up something for Nicky and I near his house, and handed me two pamphlets advertising a “Genji Monogatari Stamp Rally” in Uji.

Now, there are two things one should know about me.... One: I LOVE the Tale of Genji. I have read two English translations of it, written several essays discussing the psychology of the characters and the “missing chapter,” and it is one of the main reasons that I decided I wanted to go to Kyoto for schooling, as it had given me such a beautiful vision of what the old culture of Japan was like. Two: I go nuts over treasure hunts. I’m not too old to admit it.

Naturally, everyone at the table started laughing at me when I had a burst of excitement and glee. I decided then and there that Nicky and I would go on Halloween, since that was the day that worked with her schedule.

We got a late start today, so decided early on we would have to take the shorter course (you had to finish the whole track by 4pm or you couldn’t get to the goal), which included 10 points in which to get stamps. Of course, we wanted to try and get to as many as we could, so did all that we were able, but in the end, we were only able to complete 15 points of 22, which still isn’t bad, given that the locations were situated all throughout Uji, and one was on top of a mountain.

Right off the train, we were greeted with rain, which wasn’t too bad at the time, but quickly grew to typhoon scale. That didn’t deter us. There was no way anything could when we saw a sign that, instead of saying “Uji” said “The Town of the Tale of Genji”! Pretty much, the object of the scavenger hunt was to find the red and white tents that had the stamps, and fill up your pamphlet by 4pm.

Even though we knew our time was limited, it was impossible not to slow down and simply enjoy the scenery. Uji is famous for its matcha (ranked 6th in all of Japan), so there were lots of tea stalls everywhere. We stopped at one in particular, which was roasting its leaves fresh, right in front of the shop- the smell was so amazing. After finding out that the stall would be open until 6pm, we promised to return and carried on with our adventure.

Most of the locations were pretty close together, and everyone was having lots of fun doing it together, but at some point there was a mountain to climb. By this point, we had already visited the official Tale of Genji museum (where Nicky bought me the entire boxed set of the story in Japanese, and we bought a beautiful screen of Lady Murasaki for our house), so we were lugging quite a bit of weight with us on the way. Still, we were having an amazing time, and the view from the top of the mountain was really beautiful, so it didn’t matter.

By the time we got down the mountain though, there was so much rain that umbrellas were absolutely useless. We quickly tried to make our way through the rest of the points, especially since we only had 30 minutes left to complete the course, but to no avail. When we asked some passerby where the #10 stall was, they sadly informed us that we were too late. The contest was over.

Perhaps because he saw how crestfallen we were, or how the rain might have hindered quite a few people, or simply because he could see from our pamphlets that we had really tried, the man we had talked to made a rash decision. He had us follow him to the tent that was designated as the goal, and it quickly became apparent to me that he had been part of the event, as he knew everyone there and managed to fetch us the #10 stamp, simply so we could get our badge after a hard day’s work. He then led us to the main counter, where we got a badge, a stamp of completion, and a prize- I got same face tissue and Nicky won a Genji notepad. We thanked him profusely, of course, before braving the rain once again.

On our way back to the station, we did a little more shopping, but more importantly, we went back to that tea shop from before. It was so astounding~ the shop owner there is actually the 16th generation of the family that has owned this tea shop for the last 500 years. He showed us all sorts of articles he has been in all throughout the world, and interviews for television, and explained that his shop was actually the “Champion” of Japan- that is, voted best matcha in Japan. It was really exciting to get that sort of explanation before we went back into the cafe to have a taste of his special matcha. There were machines grinding the matcha fresh in a alcove beside the cafe, and only two tables in all the shop. The shopkeeper explained to us later it was because for the last 500 years, they have only worked on refining their tea, not making their enterprise bigger.... boy, could you taste it! It was so good!

After tea, the owner encouraged us to go up to the top of the shop with us, where the store’s personal historical items were on display. It was really awesome, to get a personal historical explanation from the store owner and nationwide champion for nearly twenty minutes in Japanese. He said it was because we had shown so an interest in the tea, more than he saw in most Japanese people who visited his shop. I learned all kinds of cool stuff- for instance, many famous people have drank this shop’s tea, including the Emperor. At one point in history, the emperor had them hand carry a barrel of tea in royal procession from Uji (near Kyoto) to Edo (now Tokyo). Also, Uji has the least amount of land devoted to tea growing, and is ranked 6th in the country in terms of quality, but despite that, his own shop is #1- not just in age (it’s the oldest at 500 years), but also in taste and quality. His family’s techniques are nearly identical to the methods Sen no Rikyu used, and he teaches tea classes every so often for around $9 that let you grind your own matcha. I’m looking forward to trying to go, maybe with my classmates. 

Finally, we decided it was time to head home.... the trip was mostly uneventful, except for the fact that we were forced to buy trash bags and ponchos to protect our belongings from the rain as we attempted to bike home for nearly an hour in the typhoon. It was utterly ridiculous, I’m not going to lie. The hoods of the ponchos wouldn’t stay on with the rain, so it was pointless to protect our faces from the dripping water coming from our hair. The clothes that were not covered completely by the ponchos were soaked completely through in a matter of minutes. It was cold and miserable and wet and more wet than even that, but the whole way home we were laughing. It was an absolutely perfect day, even with the typhoon.

I love my life with Nicky, and today was just one of those days that reminded me how much.