Gyoza may be one of my favourite things to eat and so I was excited to find out, that Utsunomiya, in Tochigi Prefecture is said to be the Gyoza capital of Japan!
Located just about 2h from Tokyo on the local train or 45min on the Shinkansen to Yamagata, Utsunomiya is a great little getaway or stop over if you are passing through. Come for a day and visit the amazing Oya stone mines or the spectacular Bamboo Forest and finish your day with a spread of Gyoza and some Cocktails and Jazz.
Either way, Utsunomiya is worth the trip, but lets talk more about Gyoza because they definitely are the star!
A selection from popular Kirasse Gyoza food hall.
If you are not yet familiar with Gyoza, the most basic and very popular version is made from a mix of ground pork, garlic, cabbage and chives for the filling, which is then wrapped in a thin, rolled out dough and then either boiled or fried. They are often inexpensive. A plate of 5 or 6 of them will only set you back about 300Yen, which makes them a great snack to have with a beer or as a side dish to have next to a bowl of Ramen.
Originally from China, Japan has adopted and localised these small pockets of joy and Gyoza are so popular that you can generally find them in any Convenience store or supermarket in Japan.
However, nothing tastes better than freshly made Gyoza and every restaurant tends to have a special style. Whether it is the thickness of the dough, it’s texture and viscosity or an interesting ingredient or topping. They are incredibly versatile and fun to eat!
Gyoza come in many form and shapes.
Ask anyone in Japan what Utsunomiya is famous for and the unified answer will be: Gyoza!
Rumour has it that about 80 years ago, WWII soldiers and Japanese settler returned to Japan from China bringing with them the “Jiaozi” Chinese dumplings. Apparently this was when Utsunomiya’s first Gyoza restaurant opened. Of course the recipe slightly adjusted to the local taste, however the ingredients were pretty much the same. Except for one thing, here most of them happened to be fried and not boiled. They generally come with a spicy chilly oil and soy based sauce.
But how did these small pouches get so famous here in Utsunomiya? Many might say the Utsunomiya Gyoza Association is the reason for it. And yes, they are a real thing! The Association was formed with a singular goal in mind to promote Gyoza in Japan. Putting the city and its favourite dish on the map, which they have done quite successfully.
These days you can even buy many Gyoza-themed items, such as Gyoza shaped notebooks, handbags and I recently even spotted a Gyoza shaped face mask.
Spicy Gyoza oil for dipping.
There are plenty of Gyoza places in Utsunomiya, in fact, you could eat at a different Gyoza shop every single day of the year!
However, there are a few places famous and loved by locals. And these five shops have come together in a single food hall. Conveniently located in the very centre of Utsunomiya “Kirasse” found its home on the lower floor (B1) of Don Quijote. Here they all have an outlet, serving a selection of their Gyoza, along with a few other dishes and drinks.
What makes this so special is that you can order from all of the shops, allowing you to really compare their different styles. The best way to do this, is to order the “standard Gyoza” from each shop and then compare them. Each plate will come with 5 pieces plus the shops signature spicy sauce and eating them side by side is great fun. Who would have thought they could indeed be so different?
But make sure to also pick some that have unusual toppings, my favourite so far is the “Okonomiyaki Gyoza” that comes with topped with green onion and Benito flakes as has a generous serving of Okonomiyaki sauce and Mayo.
A variety of Gyoza to compare at Kirasse.
If you can still eat more after visiting Kirasse, why not check out some more Gyoza?
Only slight problem may be, which one to choose?
To be honest, they are all delicious, however people do tend to have a favourite one they keep going back to. So here are some personal favourites from our Nearby Tokyo Team:
After picking on some ‘traditional’ gyoza, I recommend also trying some of the different styles of GYOZA in Utsunomiya. On the west side of JR Utsunomiya station, a place you shouldn’t miss is Samurai Jugem (サムライ寿限無).
It’s more like an Izakaya than a restaurant, but it has one of the more unique and in my opinion delicious gyozas in Utsunomiya. Each of the gyozas is twice the size of the Gyozas you can find in Kirasse, and the skin is much chewier making them very satisfying to eat.
Angus’s Tip: I highly recommend the ‘6 eat and compare set (photo)’ and try all six. (Black is bamboo shoots, Red is Tomato and Cheese, Green is Jade, Brown is Tochigi Barley, Original Jugemu gyoza, and a smaller Bite-size gyoza).
Colourful Gyoza at Samurai Jugem.
Conveniently located on the left side of Utsunomiya Station West Exit, this tiny restaurant can be easily recognised by a constant line of queuing customers.
They only have 12 seats and everything is cooked right after your order, it’s the slow food version!
What makes customers willing to wait even half an hour is the incredible texture of the skin, which is super “mochi mochi”, meaning soft and chewy. The outside is silky and soft, the inside is juicy and has a very harmonious and balanced flavour, this is why they suggest eating gyoza in a completely different way versus what you are used to.
Basically, suigyoza (boiled) should just be eaten as they are, without adding any extra flavour, while yakigyoza (pan fried) should be eaten with mayonnaise and a touch of paprika.
Marta’s Tip: Check how they cook them, since it’s really peculiar. Gyoza are not pan fried or similar, but are sealed in a sort of oven that becomes very hot and makes the sides become super crispy. Resulting in these gyoza being less oily and fatty than the usual ones!
Gyotendo boiled and fried Gyoza.
With plenty of places to choose from, why not try the “date” and visit Gyoza 365, well known in Utsunomiya for its Gyoza and wine!
Yes, in both of their two locations (one on the east and one on the west side of JR Station) you can find a fine wine selection and freshly made gyoza.
Each plate has three Gyoza’s and they are rather jumbo size, the dough is tiny bit ticker and aside from the delicious filling, there are plenty of fun topics available.
Cindy’s Tip: A must try is the Chinese Chilly oil and onion toping as well as the tomato and cheese. But there is plenty of others, well worth a visit and a little change from the traditional Gyoza shops around town.
Gyoza and wine at 365 Gyoza
So there you go, plenty of reasons to come to Utsunomiya and eat Gyoza. whether you prefer the standard one, fried, boiled with or without toppings, or opt for some adventurous filling, visiting one of the many Gyoza establishments is fun, especially if you bring a few friends. Because being able to share them also means you can try more!
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I hope you enjoyed reading about this hidden gem just north of Tokyo, if you would like to know more about fun things to do and travel ideas, please continue to have a look at our must-see / must do things nearby Tokyo page.
To book unique activities in English, please see the Nearby Tokyo experience page.
Contributor: Cindy Bissig
Cindy is a writer and photographer living and documenting her Japan experience. As a Digital Nomad, she travels all around Japan to discover its beauty and share what she finds on her YouTube channel, as well as through her articles and photographs. She is particularly passionate about local culture, food and sake. Tune into her Podcast “Sake Unplugged” to learn more about it. Her goal is to show you an authentic Japan to make sure you have the best possible experience when you visit!
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