Tochigi treats

By on April 29, 2010

Photos © Elena Derevstova


Historically Utsunomiya has been through some tough times.  Twice burned down (first in feudal times, then in World War II) the city has managed to rebuild itself and is now home to some 450,000 residents. Mention Tochigi or Utsunomiya to most people in Tokyo though and they will excitedly exclaim “Gyoza!” at you. These folk love Chinese dumplings like almost no other, as a plethora of specialist restaurants, a local gyoza statue, and an annual gyoza festival will prove.  But is there more to Tochigi and its capital city than just these beloved Chinese dumplings? I set out on a day trip to Utsunomiya with my wife and friends to find out.


Our first stop of the day was Tochinoki Family Land, the closest theme park to Utsunomiya centre. There are a number of fun rides here to enjoy (as well as some interesting looking gyoza crêpes) with most ride queues only a matter of minutes long. Tobu World Square in nearby Nikko does offer much more in terms of a day out, but plenty of families will enjoy a quick stop at Tochinoki. And as entry to the park itself is free, parents can join in or kick back as much as they like.


Our appetites worked up we headed back into the city centre to sample some of the famous Tochigi gyoza.  If you want to see just how tasty Tochigi gyoza is for yourself, you’ll certainly have to queue for it.  With some locals eating the dumplings on a daily basis, and food tourists travelling to the city especially to sample it, queues for the top gyoza restaurants often stretch out past the hour mark.  By the time we get a seat at our restaurant Kirasse, we’re famished enough to order one plate of every gyoza dish on the menu! Kirasse is well known for bringing together different gyoza variations from all of the local restaurants and manages to offer a different selection of dumplings each day of the week. We devour each plate in record time, more than impressed with the local recipes.


Our gyoza time delays meant that we were unable to make it out to the Stone Village Oya, a fantastic-looking place which has the oldest carved Buddhist reliefs in Japan, as well as the unique Oyaji temple which sits partially inside a rock face. Next time. There were a good deal of places to enjoy in the vicinity of the city centre though: Zenganji Temple with its grand bronze Buddha, Futaarayama Shrine, and Utsunomiya Castle.  In summer we agreed we could happily come back to see Oya and enjoy a game of golf at one of the three local golf clubs, two of which (Utsunomiya Country Club and Kentos Golf Club) run courtesy buses to and from Utsunomiya station.


Despite being one of the most famous tourist attractions in the area, our taxi driver in the evening doesn’t know about Kayabuki, the only monkey tavern (izakaya) in Japan. Only in Japan could an establishment with helper-monkeys exist, and as such, it has been receiving a lot of attention, with tourists flocking to visit from all over the world.  Some fifteen minutes from the station our taxi driver drops us off in a quiet neighbourhood.  We have time to settle in and enjoy our chicken teppanyaki, then sure enough Fukuchan (the male macaque monkey) hops out in costume to greet us. The little guy is somewhat nervous to meet us, but that doesn’t stop him from climbing on top of our shoulders and giving me a friendly slap on the head! There’s plenty more fun and games with Fukuchan throughout the night, and we reward his antics with some well-earned soya beans.  For those with families old enough to enjoy an izakaya atmosphere this is definitely a unique treat. 


We headed back to the station to get our last train back home, with just enough time to get some final souvenirs. On the trip back we reflected on how good the Utsunomiya gyoza were, but all agreed that we’d like to see a little less of the ever-present little dumplings next time. 


How to get there

Utsunomiya can be accessed from Tokyo by using the 

JR Shonan Shinjuku Line or the Tohoku Shinkansen.


Tochinoki Family Land

Kayabuki Tavern   

Utsunomiya Info.    

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