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Gyoza City: Utsunomiya

May 7, 2018

Just under an hour from Tokyo station is a dumpling paradise, where alluring smells waft through the streets and dumpling-seeking wanderers can choose from around 350 stores to get their fill. And, at 200-300 yen per plate, it’s an affordable gastronomic adventure.

This place is Utsunomiya. It lies in Tochigi Prefecture to the north of Tokyo, on the Tohoku and Yamagata bullet train lines to the beautiful region of Tohoku. It’s an easy day trip from the capital or a stopping-off point, or it can even be a springboard for accessing the surrounding area. Close to the city is the stunning area of Nikko, where lakes, mountains and marshland converge, and historically significant shrines and abundant hot springs compete for attention.

What Are Gyoza?

“That’s the thing about Utsunomiya gyoza,” Shinji Kasahara, Supervisor at the Utsunomiya Gyoza Association, tells me. “There’s no definition.”

In general, gyoza are dumplings in which pork is mixed with vegetables such as chives, Chinese cabbage and garlic, seasoned, and rolled up in a thin wheat-based casing. They are then boiled, pan-fried or deep-fried.

However, there are endless variations. Participating stores in the Gyoza Association have detailed inventories on what’s called the “three sizes”: the ratio of vegetables to meat, the thickness of the skin, and the weight of each gyoza. All this is qualified by the presence or absence of garlic. This allows you to work out the kind of gyoza you like best, as if it were a fine wine. Which, coincidentally, is a legitimate pairing. I spied a “gyoza and wine bar”, among other creative shops offering gyoza burgers, gyoza with spinach-flavored casings and so on.

Why Are There So Many Gyoza in Utsunomiya?

("Venus of Gyoza" statue, Utsunomiya station)

No one knows for sure. A popular theory suggests that a division of the Japanese army, headquartered in the city, returned from China after the Second World War, bringing their taste for gyoza with them. However, some believe it’s highly unlikely soldiers learned this kind of Chinese home-cooking themselves, but rather an ordinary citizen realized the returnees were a great potential market. Moreover, fried gyoza would not have been available in China, where boiling was predominant and frying was reserved for low-quality leftovers, eaten at home but certainly never served to guests!

Regardless, gyoza specialty stores in Utsunomiya exploded in popularity in the post-war period. The city is also well placed to cater to such demand – basic ingredients such as Chinese cabbage and wheat are readily available, with Tochigi Prefecture ranking second for the production of Chinese chives.

Gyoza consumption regularly ranked number one in the country, and this inspired a tourism promotion initiative. The Gyoza Association was founded in 2001, and participating stores have established an annual Gyoza Festival, which attracted 150,000 visitors last year. Although it may sound counterintuitive for stores to band together, the initiative has turned Utsunomiya into the number one destination for gyoza. As Kasahara tells me, the activities are “kyodo” (a collaboration) but the taste remains “kyoso” (a competition).

Which means it’s time to begin the search for delicious dumplings – it’s time to begin your pilgrimage.

How to Be an Utsunomiya Gyoza Pilgrim

  • Arrive at station with empty stomach. Check.
  • Grab map. Check.
  • Pay visit to the Gyozazou – a statue that pays tribute to Botticelli’s Venus, if she were a dumpling. Check.
  • Smell gyoza and go.

Strolling the town really makes you feel as if you’ve joined a collective of pilgrims. Groups clutching maps scurry by, excitedly discussing their next stop, and others eagerly swap opinions as they queue outside popular stores. Where have you tried? What’s next? Everyone has their strategies and their preferences.

The smell of gyoza pervades the streets, as if beckoning visitors to enter restaurants, nose-first. Even though many stores now opt for rolling the dough by machine, gyoza are still folded by hand. You can imagine the town in the early morning, where behind many doors, cooks are molding rows of intricate pockets ahead of the arrival of hungry hordes.

Then, there’s the local lingo. Gyoza is sold by the plateful, normally containing 5 or 6 pieces. Stride into a store confidently and declare “Sui-double, yaki” and you’ll get two plates of boiled and one of pan-fried gyoza. “Sui, yaki-triple” will get you one plate of boiled and three of pan-fried, and so on.

On my own pilgrimage, I begin with an order of each at a store that has been operating for over 50 years. While waiting for my food, I eagerly prepare the dipping sauce. This is a combination of soy sauce, vinegar and rayu (spicy chili oil) – mix it freely to your tastes.

I first pick up a yaki gyoza and bite into it, savoring the crispness of the skin as it gives way to a succulent, lightly garlicky filling. It occurs to me that this is possibly the best gyoza that I have ever eaten. I dip it into the sauce, with plenty of homemade rayu, and feel the saltiness, tanginess and spiciness draw out a new range of flavors.

Next, a boiled dumpling with a casing so smooth I swear this might be the pilgrimage zenith – the way it softly slides down is a near-religious experience. I try adding the sauces to the light broth, but dipping directly quickly becomes my preference.

All too soon, my yaki-sui order is finished and I’m on my feet to my next stop. At the next store, I not only get a fried-boiled combination but also age-gyoza (deep-fried). The order is not as heavy as it sounds: this store – although well-frequented by locals – apparently only uses a kilogram of meat on weekdays and about twice that on a weekend. According to Kasahara, the typical ratio in Utsunomiya gyoza of veg to meat is 7 to 3, which makes them surprisingly light and healthier than might be expected.

At this store, I discover the consistency of the yaki-gyoza filling to be more substantial, with a strong cabbage flavor. The age-gyoza's deep-fried casing is also crispy, but thicker, with a slight, satisfying chewiness. It again receives lashings of homemade rayu.

On a final hit – again to a long-established, well-renowned store – I sample the popular hane-tsuki gyoza. These have been fried so that the casing forms a crispy lattice, joining the gyoza together in one grid. I break one off with a snap and relish the crunch that it adds to the garlicky, juicy filling.

Sat at the counter, I see other devotees – locals and tourists – intent on their meals. There are regular extra orders – “Yaki, just one more.” And if I weren’t at the end of my pilgrimage day, I would be sure to join them. Utsunomiya gyoza are far too numerous to worship in one day, so it’s a pilgrimage worth making many times.

Text and Photos: Phoebe Amoroso

Masashi Miyajimaten
4-3-1 Babadori, Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture
+81 (0)28-622-7058

1-24 Honcho, Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture
+81 (0)28-622-4024

Utsunomiya Minmin Honten
4-2-3 Babadori, Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture
+81 (0)28-622-5789