[blog]* Day 10 - Utsunomiya, the capital of gyoza - plus an unexpected encounter with an angry tourist office lady, which led to other things.
I couldn't stray too far today, as I was due to go up to Hokkaido tomorrow. But Utsunomiya was conveniently close by, and had only one item of interest - easy and pain-free, right? Or it was supposed to be.
Having spent the night at US Army Camp Zama, I first took the Odakyu line back to Shinjuku in Tokyo, and from there to Omiya in Saitama, before transferring to the Shinkansen (bullet train) there to Utsunomiya.
Omiya Station was huge, and made me want to get off and see more of Saitama. I'll end up coming here when I pass through the Kanto region again.
This stall at the station was attracting a ridiculously lone line, so following the sheep rule I dutifully went and checked it out. Hey, it is my job.
I was actually rushing to catch the Shinkansen so I actually had no idea what I was buying. Turns out it was a "cream puff" (though "cream bread" is a better description) from a famous shop in the Mihara Port, in Hiroshima.
I went for the matcha (green tea) flavour, but they had chocolate and others. It was good - soft, chewy sweet bread (i.e. Japanese bread - very different from the traditional Western style) and a blob of chilled and vaguely bland cream inside. For ¥200 ($2.16 / £1.47) it's not cheap, but since you're in the country I really think you may as well.
At the Shinkansen terminal.
This is what the inside of the Shinkansen looks like, in case anyone is curious. Kind of like a plane really. Seats recline pretty far back and some seats had a power supply for laptops as well.
I'll have to do up an article on trains later, I guess. The Shinkansen was going too fast for decent photos, but there were some pretty interesting things to see.
There's actually also a direct line running from Shinjuku to Utsunomiya, but it's a slower train.
Arrived at Utsunomiya in the early afternoon, since I'd set off pretty late from Zama. The first thing I saw were the gyoza shops... everywhere. Well, it is the "capital of gyoza".
It says "gyoza"
Utsunomiya rather daringly pronounces itself Japan's "capital of gyoza" - which was of course why I had come here in the first place. I stopped to talk to the lady at the tourist information centre, to get a recommendation on where to try some.
I don't think I've ever seen anyone turn so red in 0.3 seconds. "There's more to Utsunomiya than just gyoza!" - apparently. Out came a fluffy pink and a map, and soon I had my day planned out for me - oh, and by the way, the bus was leaving in 5 minutes.
When I asked about the gyoza, the lady replied with a rather stern glare that after I had done A, B and C, I could go eat gyoza here.
Half an hour later, I ended up... somewhere.
Wait, wait, wait. I thought I was supposed to be travelling to Utsunomiya, capital of gyoza... you know, capital. A city. Civilisation? 100ft stone walls and a forest of green-red leaves was not what I was expecting.
In Japan, the leaves turn red in October making for a veritable sight. I was a little too early for this; in a week or so this would have been absolutely breathtaking. But it was still very pretty as it was.
These boys were out fishing in the nearby stream:
I was (apparently) actually here for two specific things, though - the Ohya Stone Museum and the nearby statue of Kannon.
There is no conveying how huge this was
I decided to head for the museum first. Getting there itself was a bit of a conquest - it was pretty badly signposted and I was pretty sure I was on the wrong track most of the time. Or maybe I'm just awful with directions...
But really, the signposting wasn't great. Be careful.
Hey, I wasn't the only one looking lost
The entrance to the Museum
Once I got there, I understood why the angry lady had forbidden me to eat gyoza until later - last entry was at 4pm, and I'd only just made it in time.
Entrance fee was ¥600. Well, I was there anyway, so I duly coughed up and entered, though I didn't really know what to expect.
It turns out that the vicinity used to be a mining area, and the museum was actually an old underground mine.
The mines were significantly colder than outside - I think it was around 25°C or so that day outside, but inside the temperature was around 12 - 13°C.
The mines close at 4:30pm, so pretty soon I was the only one there.
Just for the record, I am no wuss. In fact, I like to think I'm pretty gutsy. But... I was the only one there, and it was really, really dark, and there was the eerie sound of dripping, and pools of pitch-black water stretching into the darkness...
I'm pretty sure this isn't the way the place is meant to be marketed, but actually I had the thought that this was easily the best "haunted house" I'd been to. It was bloody awesome.
You so have to come here. Worth the 2 hour trip to Utsunomiya? If you end up like me and have the place to yourself... hell yes.
Surfacing! Successful escape +1
Entrance to the museum
I don't think the photos really convey it, but somehow the entire area felt... magical.
Well, that, and my nerves were still tingling from the experience in the mines. But it really was beautiful.
Frogs again! There were loads of them here
On the way back out
The next stop, by the angry lady plan, was the statue of Kannon in the nearby park.
I had been expecting it to be more... touristy, but although this time the signs were readable and pointing in the right direction (that does tend to help) it was basically a matter of making your own way through the mountainside village yourself.
Actually, that too was pretty awesome.
On the way there, I passed by this little... shrine? Literally, by the roadside, in the middle of nowhere. A giant spiderweb covered the entrance and it looked like no one had entered for years.
It was so wondrous and yet so... everyday. I think it was from then on that I started to appreciate just a little, at least, how deeply interwoven spirituality is with Japanese culture.
Back on the main road. It really felt like stepping into a time warp, twenty or thirty years backwards.
Passing by the Ohya shrine - I'll come back to this
The statue was inside the local park. It was getting properly dark by this time, but there were still some local kids around playing catch. It was kind of... cute.
The statue of Kannon is 90ft tall, and towers over the park. The park itself was impressive, too, with impossibly tall stone walls flanking the pathways.
View from the statue platform. People looked like little ants...
My final stop was the small shrine outside, significant for having the oldest sculpture of Kannon in Japan. It had actually closed before I got here, though with some gallant climbing (not into! Just around) I was able to take a look inside.
At this point I decided to head back. It gets pretty dark, and I had the thought that I could have been in no small amount of trouble.
I'd advise coming a little earlier than I did...
Having gotten off the bus, I looked around and the first thing I saw was a... shrine. Of course I had to go up.
I loved how there could be a shrine just buried in the middle of a neon-lit city.
I was still outside the shrine proper, at this point - this was just at the entrance.
Omikuji stand for tying your bad luck. Lots of bad luck that day, mm.
By this point my camera battery was running low (again) so I high-tailed it out of the temple. What was I here in Utsunomiya for again?
Oh yeah, gyoza.
The lady had circled a certain place on my map to go for gyoza ("But only after you visit everything else!") so I obediently went and took the escalator down to the basement... having no idea what to actually expect.
It turned out to be the "collective" food court for gyoza. All the major gyoza stores in Utsunomiya had a stall here, so you could try gyoza from different stores all at once. Genius.
I picked a store at random and just chose whatever looked best at first glance. I hadn't paid proper attention and thought this was egg on ramen on rice (which they do do, in places) - but it was actually egg on mayonnaise on rice.
Incidentally, this was actually billed on the menu as "makanai" rice. "Makanai" refers to food cooked for the staff, and is an art in itself - on the one hand, ingredients have to be affordable; on the other, it has to suit the rather more delicate palate of pros who work with food everyday.
Not an easy task, but I think this lived up to its name.
Raw egg yolk blending in with creamy mayonnaise, on rich, cooked-to-perfection short-grain rice. So, so wrong, on so many (diet-related) levels. But insanely good.
The rice, dare I say, was the best meal I'd had since coming here to Japan.
On the other hand, the gyoza that came with the set were, to be honest, not that inspiring.
Don't get me wrong - they were technically excellent. A deliciously crisp base with a heavenly-soft centre, just a little hot juice gushing out with the bite, and what felt like an entire Chinese banquet in one mouthful of pork and vegetable.
Excellent but... somehow, just, not anything more than that. And I'm a gyoza type of girl, too.
I ordered another set from another stall, just to be sure. Yes, I downed 12 gyoza all by myself, just so you could get full coverage. The things I do for you.
I purposefully picked a stall which had nothing but gyoza on the menu - the extreme, full-blown speciality shop. On second taste, if anything the Utsunomiya gyoza actually tasted lighter and less intense than usual elsewhere-issue gyoza.
It's not a bad thing; the flavour is more subtle and more delicate. But nothing mind-blowing... maybe I'd just jacked my expectations up too high.
After gyoza, back to civilisation. By now it was very late and I didn't want to risk missing the last train back, which on a Sunday was a relatively early 10:37pm.
The streets were - so different from Tokyo - completely deserted. It felt distinctly... different, and actually reminded me of Hong Kong somewhat, which probably means more humidity and more smog.
Somehow I felt less safe, too - this comparing to Kabuki-cho at 4am. If we're talking about the city itself, I definitely like Tokyo better.
At this point my camera caved completely, so no more pictures. I took the Shinkansen directly to (this is all Tokyo now) Ueno, from where I transferred at Akihabara to Asakusa, where I was staying for the night.
Results: Day 10
The List: #9 - Cream bread (from Mihara Port, Hiroshima) :: #10 - Mayo rice with egg ("makanai" rice) :: #11 - Utsunomiya gyoza (dumpling)
Today wasn't too bad - only one food item, but I did cover a whole lot of ground! Not nearly as bad as tomorrow, though...
Ever visited Utsunomiya? Ever run into the angry tourist office lady? What makes good gyoza, and where's the best you've had it in Japan - or elsewhere? Send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan