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.
|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|