Utsunomiya brings ‘gyoza’ lovers into fold

City north of Tokyo capitalizes on reputation for making Japan's best dumplings

by Rob Gilhooly

UTSUNOMIYA, Tochigi Pref. — At the bottom of the steps leading out of JR Utsunomiya Station is a statue of Venus quite unlike any other.

Standing about 1.5 meters tall, the stone statue is shaped like a half moon, the thin edge of the right side rippled like the edges of an oyster shell. On the surface is embossed the face, arms and other prominent body parts of the mythological goddess.

Far from being a commemoration of some celebrated local astronomer or New Age cult, however, the statue is actually a celebration of the city’s culinary pride and joy — “gyoza.”

Eateries specializing in gyoza — crescent-shaped, raviolilike dough pouches filled with meat and vegetables that are served fried or steamed — enjoy a reputation in Utsunomiya similar to the ramen shops of Kitakata, Sapporo and Nagasaki.

Like the famed noodle towns, Utsunomiya, which has a population of around 440,000, attracts swarms of inquisitive visitors from around the nation.

What’s more, local gyoza consumption is reportedly the highest in Japan. So high, in fact, that some say to deny a local resident of gyoza would be like banning hamburgers in the United States.

“It’s often said that you can find gyoza encoded in local residents’ DNA,” said Miyuki Saito of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I can tell you, that’s definitely true.”

If official statistics are anything to go by, medical researchers might want to take note of Saito’s words.

Since 1987, when the then Management and Coordination Agency started including the foodstuff in its annual survey of consumer habits around Japan, the city repeatedly has come in as the nation’s top gyoza gobbler, with the exception of 1995, when it was bumped to No. 2.

Tokyo’s highest entry was fourth place, in 1996.

The survey is based on average annual expenditure per household on ready-made gyoza bought and taken home from supermarkets and gyoza eateries. It does not, however, include gyoza eaten in restaurants.

“If you included the gyoza consumed in the restaurants, Utsunomiya would clearly be in a class of its own,” said an employee at the gyoza restaurant Ton Ton.

In Utsunomiya, expenditure on the dumplings — which cost between 170 yen and 300 yen for a pack of 12 in supermarkets or servings of six in gyoza eateries — peaked in 1998, when households were found to spend an average of 4,176 yen. The equivalent figure in Tokyo that year was 2,754 yen.

Osaka — a city that prides itself on good eating — and ramen capital Sapporo have never even placed in the top 10 of the 49 prefectures and cities covered in the survey.

These statistics prompted Utsunomiya officials to think up ways to promote the city as Japan’s gyoza mecca. Helping their cause was a well-developed infrastructure — the city has 30-odd eateries specializing in the delectable dumplings — reportedly the highest concentration per capita in the country.

City officials joined forces with members of the Utsunomiya Gyoza Association to draw up a tourist map-cum-pamphlet to help guide visitors, while the creation of an annual gyoza festival and the erection of the “Gyoza Statue” in 1994 helped lure Japan’s cuisine-crazy media.

Their efforts have paid off.

On weekends and national holidays, the city’s eateries are easily distinguished by the long lines of gyoza connoisseurs waiting for a garlic, meat and veggie fix.

“Utsunomiya long had been a town that people passed through on their way to other better-known destinations in Tochigi Prefecture, such as Nikko and Nasu,” said Shinichi Komatsu of the Utsunomiya Chamber of Commerce. “Now many also make a point of stopping off here for a plate of gyoza.”

Masaru Ohara had only one thing in his sights when he drove up from Yokohama with a group of friends, waiting 40 minutes to sample the gyoza at Ming Ming.

“You can buy gyoza anywhere in Japan, but the taste is completely different here.”

Local restaurants are, in a sense, raking in the dough.

“We serve about 2,000 dishes, or 12,000 gyoza, per day on weekends,” said Nobuo Ito of Ming Ming, which, at 40 years old, is Utsunomiya’s oldest gyoza house.

Annual earnings of the 10 Ming Ming outlets in the city total around 400 million yen, he added. “Not bad considering we’re in the dumpling business,” he said.

Business is also good at Kirasse, a gyoza store opened by the Utsunomiya Chamber of Commerce in 1998 that serves up to 1,200 people on Saturdays and Sundays, according to UCC official Komatsu.

Around 60 percent of those customers come from outside the prefecture, he added.

While most visitors come from Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, some come from even further afield. “The other day, a boy who came especially to eat gyoza here said he had traveled by bicycle — from Kyoto!” Komatsu said.

One of Kirasse’s features is that customers can sample the dumplings of 17 local eateries, as well as the store’s own innovations, which include “soup gyoza” and “curry gyoza.”

Ming Ming’s Ito said he has never ceased to be amazed at the continued influx of customers, but expressed concern that such a boom could affect quality and lead to fly-by-night operations whose only concern was to make a quick buck.

“I never thought there would be this kind of boom, especially during such a recession,” he said.

Most eateries stick to recipes handed down from their forefathers, with subtle variations to the fillings to make use of seasonal vegetables. Others have succumbed to demands for variety.

Included among the 50 varieties of filling on offer at Iki Iki Gyoza, for example, are chocolate, yogurt, cheese, sea urchin and sausage.

“I prefer the traditional varieties, but the kids love the sweet stuff,” said one U.S. customer who had brought along his two small children for a day out from neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture.

Another unusual variety can be found at Ton Ton, where jumbo gyoza are, at 15 cm in length, over twice the size of regular gyoza.

Many patrons, however, prefer the standard fare — a filling of minced pork, garlic and cabbage.

“The dough is so thin and light,” said 23-year-old Kazumi Nomura from Hachioji, western Tokyo, as she munched on gyoza from Chugoku Hanten. “The stuff you get in Tokyo is so chewy it takes half an hour to get to the filling,” she added.

Local residents seem bemused by the attention.

“They drive out here only to wait in line for an hour, and for what?” a cabby asked. “Isn’t there anything more interesting to do in Tokyo?”