Sunday, May 27, 2012


Gyoza a go go

If you’ve had gyoza in Japan, you might know why my friend and I decided to take a lazy day to travel up to Utsunomiya. The biggest city in Tochigi, on the way to Nikko, is famous above all, for these deliciously garlicky pork dumplings.

Tobu railways are promoting Utsunomiya at the moment

Close up of some of the many varieties

It takes about an hour and a half by train from Tokyo, on the Shonan Shinjuku line or the Utsunomiya line. However, if you’re pressed for time (and feeling flush), there’s also a Shinkansen from Ueno. The city centre is compact, and you can walk to most interesting areas within 10 – 15 minutes. There aren’t any spectacular sights – a bit of a ruined castle, a park that’s a popular cherry blossom spot, and Futarasan shrine. The real pleasures are the narrow back streets beyond the shrine around the Kame river, crowded with jazz bars, kooky little shops, and of course, gyoza.

The story is that back in the 1930s, many soldiers from Utsunomiya were stationed in Manchuria, where they developed a taste for the local version of Chinese dumplings (potstickers). After WWII, they returned to their hometown, they brought the recipes with them, and many of the soldiers opened gyoza shops.

Since Utsunomiya lacks the spectacular attractions of nearby Nikko, the city’s tourist officials seized on the fact that locals consumed more gyoza than anyone else in Japan, and promptly promoted Utsunomiya as “gyoza city”. Anyway, all you need to know is, they are delicious! What makes them so special? Perhaps the extra thin, crispy skins, and the generous amount of fillings – these ain’t your typical supermarket gyoza!

We headed first to Utsunomiya Gyoza Kan, just off to the left, if you take the West exit of the station (but they have several restaurants – just look out for the “gyoza boy” statue!). You can get a mixed dozen – a great way to figure out your favourites. I liked the garlicky nira gyoza, the spicy kimchee and the shiso ones the best, but I wish they put little flags in them or something – we had to play “guess which one you’re eating”. Other recommended restaurants are Kirasse, near Tobu Utsunomiya station, Ming Ming and also Iki Iki Gyoza, which has odd fillings including uni (sea urchin roe) and chocolate (not together, thankfully!)

We dubbed him "gyoza boy"

What goes best with gyoza? Beer, of course.

We wanted to visit the Oya stone museum, where the local volcanic stone (it looks a lot like pumice), comes from. However, it was closed due to safety concerns after the earthquake (it might be open again now). We contented ourselves with finding the odd statues carved from the stone that are dotted around the city. Of course, you can’t miss the “Venus”, wrapped in a Gyoza.

Restaurant sign

More hand-painted signs

In a traditional medicine shop. I don't want to know!

Pandas are multiplying

You'd feel pretty special having coffee here

Pretty back street canal

Boy with a toothache? One of the many local sculptures

Before we left, we had a few “last gyoza for the road” inside the station. I think the best were the “kurobuta” (black Berkshire pig) gyoza – very juicy, without too much garlic to kill the delicate flavour.

A few for the road.

We tried deep fried gyoza, but they didn't taste as good as the regular pan fried type.

In case you’re not a fan of gyoza, fear not: Tochigi prefecture is also famous for strawberries, so you’ll find the shops in the station full of strawberry-cream  pastries, freeze-dried strawberries, jams, candies – and if you’re there in season, you might actually find fresh ones.

Venus emerging from a gyoza

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Kameido 亀戸

Flowers and Miso and Enka, oh my!

Sorry for the long delay in posting - this is the best time of year to get out and see stuff, before the rainy season and then the oppressive heat of summer - so I've been busy looking and snapping and shopping!

I went to Kameido for the first time, just after Golden Week. There were two reasons: I hoped to see the last of the wisteria (fuji) at Kameido Tenjin Shrine, which, with its unusual drum-shaped bridge and wisteria, has been immortalised by countless Ukiyo-e artists like Hiroshige, and in one of my favourite images by Toshi Yoshida in the 1940s.

Kameido Tenjin Taiko bashi by Hiroshige

The wisteria as seen by Toshi Yoshida

Today, you can see wisteria with Skytree

The famous bridge, with the last of the wisteria.

The other reason was I’d read about an amazing miso shop just near Kameido station, and I really wanted to check it out.

Kameido is real “shitamachi” or downtown Tokyo. Across the river from Asakusa, it has a unique atmosphere – it’s not too crowded, the shop keepers are all up for a chat, there are Taisho-era buildings and Enka songs blaring, and there are lots of specialties to buy! 

One of the symbols of Kameido is a unique daikon. I’ve always been a fan of daikon, that versatile Japanese radish. It’s so irrepressible: you sometimes find daikon growing through roads and pavements. Kameido’s daikon is smaller and delicately flavoured. 

Kameido daikon

There’s an excellent bento shop on the way to the shrine, called Masumoto. They’ve been making lunch boxes since the 1860s so they probably know what they’re doing! Pick up a lunch box made with organic vegetables and the famous daikon to eat in the shrine grounds, or you can eat-in at the shop. 

Masumoto - just look for the daikon sign!
Spring lunch box

A must-see is Funabashiya, a sweet shop which apparently invented kudzu mochi (arrowroot mochi) around 200 years ago. The store opened in 1805 to cater for visitors to the next door Kameido Tenjin shrine. They also have all the classic Japanese sweets like anmitsu and tokoroten. As they’re made without dairy products, Japanese sweets are actually fairly low in calories, though the textures (cubes of firm jelly, soft, chewy mochi, thick, cloying beanpaste) may not be to everyone’s taste.

Kudzu mochi with kinako powder and kuromitsu

The milky, jelly-like kudzu mochi has little taste, but it’s a good vehicle for kinako – soybean powder, and kuromitsu – brown sugar syrup. It’s one of the classic omiyage to buy in Kameido, but if you miss the store, there’s a booth selling them at the station, too.

Funabashiya is at Kameido 3-2-14, just in front of Kameido Tenjin Shrine. 

Walking back towards the station, you’ll come across an amazing little street approaching Katori shrine, which looks straight out of the Taisho-era. Kachi-un shotengai has a charming old atmosphere, was actually re-built last year. Some of the stores have bronze cladding – a technique developed after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake to both modernize and fire-proof the old wooden buildings. There’s a miso shop, a great pickle shop, a sembei shop and lots of little eateries. The stores themselves have been around since the 1950s at least, but the retro-remodelling is an attempt to bring in more visitors who might come to the area thanks to Skytree nearby. 

The entrance of Kachi-un, leading to Katori shrine

Yamacho sweet shop is on the corner. It feels like a movie set.

The pickles and umeboshi are guarded by a very dour daruma figure.

The other “must see” is Sano Miso on the other side of Kameido station. There are dozens of wooden tubs, filled of miso pastes from all over Japan. The rich, salty-sweet aroma is amazing. You can sniff, sample and ask questions to help you choose the best miso for your needs. They also have many kinds of dashi, pickles, dried fish and snacks. Whether you’re a novice or a professional cook, you’ll love this shop!

Sano Miso

Miso, miso everywhere

Sano Miso is on Kananna dori at 1-35-8 Kameido, about 3 mins walk from the station.

This is ochazuke mix, ready to add to rice, with freeze-dried sea bream

You can buy small tubs of Miso - around 200gm, starting at about 450 yen, so you can sample different kinds. Red and white mixed together make good miso soup.