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Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009

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Yummy!: A selection of gyoza at the Kirasse! (local dialect for "welcome") outlet in a city-center department store, where no fewer than 26 varieties of this "Chinese ravioli" for which Utsunomiya is famous were to be found on the mouth-watering menu.

Sampling a pot-sticker paradise

If it's gyoza you go for, Utsunomiya's a perfect place to go — for those and much more


Special to The Japan Times

Whenever I watch national broadcaster NHK's weather forecast, I feel consoled that no matter how hot it may get in July and August in Tokyo, the mercury in Utsunomiya is always going to be several degrees higher.

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Take your pick: Outdoor snack joints in the clean and friendly Yatai Yokocho quarter

So this city of 500,000 that's 100 km north of Tokyo in Tochigi Prefecture was the last place I expected to go to cool off — until I discovered the Oya Stone Museum, an underground limestone quarry where the thermometer registers about 8 degrees year-round.

I'd been to Utsunomiya a few times before; but normally just en route to more storied destinations in Nikko, 35 km to the west, such as the Toshogu Shrine, Kinugawa hot-springs resort or Nikko Edo Mura, a wonderfully managed historical theme park. Last month, though, I decided it was time to properly acquaint myself with the city itself.

But first some background.

Utsunomiya's recorded history dates back to the ninth century, but it owes its name to that of the samurai clan whose domain was centered there from the late 16th century. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was ruled by the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate, it served as an important post town at the junction of the Nikko Kaido and the Oshu Kaido, two principal roads linking Edo (present-day Tokyo) to the far-flung northern provinces. Today it serves as Tochigi's prefectural capital.

The city is easily accessed in about 90 minutes by express train from Tokyo, or in an hour aboard a Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train.

I arrived at 11 a.m. on the dot. After picking up some free maps and tour brochures from the station's visitors counter, I hopped a taxi to the south entrance of Hachimanyama Park and climbed up to Utsunomiya Tower (admission ¥200) for a panoramic, 360-degree view of the city.

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Cheers!: Sadao Yokosuka pours one of the fine beers at his Tochigi Microbrewery.

The guide map indicated that there is an old wartime army bunker near the north side of the tower, but I was disappointed to find it was fenced off and inaccessible to visitors. By sheer serendipity, though, my return to the city center took me right past the Tochigi Microbrewery ([028] 622-1314), where I was welcomed by its proprietor, Sadao Yokosuka, and took my ease while sampling some of his fresh brews on tap — including a tasty brown ale and an exotic chocolate-orange concoction.

Suitably fortified, I was ready for a late lunch.

Utsunomiya's gustatory claim to fame is gyoza, a dish known alternatively both as "Chinese ravioli" and "pot-stickers."

The first Japanese said to have eaten gyoza was the Lord of Mito, Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701) — better known to fans of Japanese TV period dramas as Mito Komon. Whoever, it appears he learned about the dish from a Chinese scholar, Shu Shunsui, who was exiled to Japan after the Ming Dynasty collapsed.

Then, fast-forwarding to around 1940, soldiers discharged from the Imperial Japanese Army's 14th Division who had been based in Manchuria, northeast China, began returning to Tochigi and popularized the dish.

Consequently, Utsunomiya now boasts dozens of specialty gyoza restaurants.

For the record, authentic Chinese gyoza (jiaozi in Chinese) are consumed boiled, whereas the fried variety yaki-gyoza commonly scoffed in Japan are referred to as guotie (pronounced "gwo-tye") in Chinese. Their fillings might include minced pork, leek, garlic, bok choy cabbage, mushrooms, shrimp and — at least in Utsunomiya — practically anything else, including cheese.

Incidentally, owing to their puckered appearance, the cauliflower ears common among boxers, judoists and sumo wrestlers are referred to in Japanese as gyoza mimi (gyoza ears).

Such colorful nomenclature notwithstanding, Japanese and Chinese tend to anoint their dumplings quite differently.

Whereas the former usually dip them into a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and hot-pepper oil (rayu), Chinese tend to favor a type of aromatic black vinegar, the best-known variety of which comes from Shaoxing City in Zhejiang Province to the south of Shanghai.

For my midday repast, I dined at the Kirasse! (local dialect for "welcome") outlet in the basement of the city-center Nagasakiya department store, which amazingly offers no fewer than 26 varieties. My selection consisted of several gyoza atop a bowl of curry and rice, and two other varieties that were gone in a blur along with a bottle of locally brewed Gyoza Roman beer.

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Photo-op: The picturesque Kamegawa River as it runs through central Utsunomiya. MARK SCHREIBER PHOTOS

Following lunch, I boarded a bus in front of the big Parco store to the Oya Stone Museum, about 20 minutes away.

The limestone in this area was apparently formed about 20 million years ago, and it has been quarried from ancient times.

On the museum's ground floor is a small exhibit of old stonecutting tools and photos from bygone eras. A panel notes that the facade of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, opened in 1923 (and demolished in 1968), utilized Oya stone.

As you descend the steps to the underground quarry, you immediately plunge into a layer of chilled air which, coming from the steamy outside, feels absolutely exhilarating.

While dark, the pathway is well lit and visitors are free to linger inside as long as they want (at least 30 minutes is recommended). No guides are provided, but the panels in the museum do a good job of explaining quarry operation and are quite educational.

In the days before modern machinery, I learned, the rocks were cut from their strata and pulled up a slope to the surface on wheeled carts. But then most remarkably, in the innermost recess — I am (almost) hesitant to use the term "rock bottom" — of the quarry is a stage where performers harness its unusual acoustics to perform music concerts. Those wishing to attend are advised to check out the schedule in advance.

Catching the bus back to the city, I hoofed it for about a kilometer to the site where Utsunomiya's castle once stood. The replica-type ramparts and towers are of recent construction, and alas they don't offer much of a view as they are lower than many surrounding office buildings.

From there, en route to the central business district, I spotted the picturesque Kamegawa River, a pastoral waterway that meanders through the city and bisects the Orion Mall, a covered shopping street that terminates at Tobu Utsunomiya rail station.

Suitably exerted by my exertions, for supper I decided to dine at Utsunomiya Gyoza-kan, where a sampler course of 12 different dumpling varieties costs just ¥800. The only downside to this feast is that all the dumplings look the same, so you don't know what you're eating until you bite into it.

However, before departing gyoza- gorged for home, I'd advise visitors to allow at least 15 minutes to browse the souvenir shops at JR Utsunomiya Station. In addition to offering many locally produced goodies, they also furnish (you guessed it!) a deluxe gyoza bento (boxed meal) to help keep body and soul together aboard the train.

One lesson I learned this time: by opting for a first-class seat — costing a mere ¥750 extra on weekends and holidays — I conserved my energy, enabling me to cover a lot of the town in just one day.

Nevertheless, Utsunomiya offers enough other attractions — like the Tochigi Microbrewery, its "Fairy Museum" and outdoor snack joints in the spanking clean and friendly Yatai Yokocho quarter — to justify a second visit. It's one I hope to make soon.

Getting there: Trains from Tokyo to Utsunomiya on the JR Shonan Shinjuku Line run from Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro stations, and "Kaisoku Rabbit" trains depart from JR Ueno. The one-way fare is ¥1,890. The Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station is 30 minutes faster, though it costs ¥4,800 one way. Utsunomiya Tower is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Oya Stone Museum ([028] 652-1232) is reached by the No. 45 bus to Tateiwa from Stop #6 in front of JR Utsunomiya Station (¥440). Opening hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; admission for adults is ¥600; closed Thurs. and during yearend/new year period. The tourist information counter in JR Utsunomiya Station (open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.) can also tell you how to rent a bicycle for ¥100 per day.


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