Welcome to Utsunomiya -- gyoza town
Utsunomiya, the capital of Tochigi prefecture, is just 75 miles north of Tokyo. Yet for years, most Tokyoites had only a vague awareness that the town even existed. Now, however, with more than 200 different gyoza-themed eateries within its boundaries, the dumpling lover has a fresh mandate to make the journey.
The origins of the gyoza boom
How exactly did Utsunomiya become the gyoza capital of Japan? After World War 2, Japanese soldiers stationed in Manchuria returned home to Utsunomiya with secret Chinese dumpling recipes in hand. These repatriated soldiers proceeded to open dumpling houses throughout the city.
In 1990, city officials became aware that Utsunomiya residents consumed more gyoza per capita that anyone else in Japan. This discovery naturally led to the creation of the Utsuomiya Gyoza Association, which promoted a new wave of gyoza culture. Their work culminated in the commission of the Gyoza Statue -- an impressive work of a stylized Venus emerging, not from an oyster shell, but from a giant gyoza wrapper. The humble gyoza had finally succeeded in putting once-obscure Utsunomiya on the map. Revenues from gyoza-themed tourism now bring millions of yen into the city every year.
First bites: Kirasse and Utsunomiya Gyoza-kan
The best place to start the long dumpling crawl in Utsunomiya is at Kirasse (La Park Nagasakiya B1, 2-3-12 Baba-dori, Utsunomiya-shi, tel. 028 614 5388), a short walk from Tobu station. Operated by the Utsunomiya Gyoza Association, Kirasse's menu allows visitors to sample gyoza from a number of the Association’s 70-plus member restaurants at a single location. This is a great place to get a feel for the breadth of options available, then hone in on the shops that best match personal taste.
After Kirasse, head to the east side of the JR station and proceed to Utsunomiya Gyoza-kan (3-4-4 Ekimae-dori, Utsunomiya-shi, tel. 028 266 6067), a veritable palace of all things dumpling. Before entering, greet the statue of mascot Stamina Kenta-kun, who encourages visitors to take a bite out of his gigantic (concrete) gyoza head. (Do not actually bite the statue.)
Although the gyoza here is solid -- particularly the Tochigi Nira-gyoza, chock full of locally grown Chinese chives -- the main reason to visit the Gyoza-kan is to bear witness to the extent to which the city's overactive PR machine has fetishized a Chinese peasant food into an engine of economic activity.
Advanced dumplings: Iki Iki Gyoza
Among the neon-lit streets east of JR Utsunomiya, Iki Iki Gyoza (1-12-12 Shukugo, Utsunomiya-shi, tel. 028 634 6448) stands out with its bright blue signage. The large illustrated sign in front, depicting dinosaurs and a caveman family eating dumplings under a gyoza moon, provides instant indication that Iki Iki is going to take this whole gyoza thing to a much weirder dimension.
Breaking from standard gyoza protocol, the proprietors clearly believe there is no culinary ingredient that cannot be wrapped in a gyoza skin and pan-fried. The back wall of the restaurant is covered with wooden placards advertising all manner of dumpling, from standard meat and vegetable varieties to those with other savory fillings such as miso, cheese, walnut, liver and curry. Iki Iki even offers dessert-themed gyoza selections such as coffee, tea, chocolate, fruit and yogurt. Recommendations here include the pork-chunk ton ton gyoza, green pepper and beef piman gyoza and the garlic lover's ninniku gyoza.
Unlike most other gyoza joints in Utsunomiya, Iki Iki is open until 4am every day. So, for those wishing to extend the simple day trip up north into an overnight, gyoza-binging marathon, there is no need to find a hotel. Just keep scarfing dumplings at Iki Iki until the first morning train.