[place]* The self-proclaimed capital of gyoza, Utsunomiya is an area of rich historical and natural beauty, and offers a pleasant surprise to those who are willing to look further in.
In a Nutshell
99 km (61 miles) north of Tokyo, Utsunomiya has the dubious distinction between one of the several Japanese cities to have been completely burnt to the ground, twice - once during the Boshin War, and again during World War II. It now hosts a declining population of 450,000, but in recent years it has made a valiant effort to rejuvenate itself through aggressive industrialisation and, lately, tourism development. It boasts both the largest production and turnover of gyoza in Japan.
What to See
The ex-mining region of Ohya is delightful. Visit the haunting caverns of the Ohya Stone Museum, see the 90 ft statue of Heiwakannon (Kannon, Goddess of Peace) and visit Ohya Temple, home to the oldest stone-carved Buddha in Japan. The 1,600 year-old Futarayama Shrine in the city centre is just two blocks away from the station and rooted in history.
What to Eat
Utsunomiya's status as the "capital of gyoza" is fairly recent and largely self-bestowed, but there nevertheless are a host of good gyoza shops in the city and an excellent gyoza-dedicated food court, where you can try out all the various iterations of Utsunomiya gyoza (pan-fried, boiled, pork, not-pork) in one place to your heart's content.
The JR Shonan Shinjuku Line runs direct from Shinjuku to Utsunomiya, departing every hour and taking an hour and a half for ¥1,890 one way. However, if you have a JR Rail Pass, you can change at Omiya (Saitama) for the Shinkansen Nasuno, which cuts half an hour off the journey time.
The city centre, Futarayama Shrine and the "Kirasse" gyoza food court are both within walking distance of the JR station. Buses to Ohya and other local attractions run from the bus terminal in front of the station; ask at the tourist office for further details.
To my own surprise, I actually quite liked Utsunomiya. The city itself is a little grim - a reminder both of Japan's tragic history and the economic devastation of its "lost decade". But the surrounding region of Ohya is delightful, and as a foodie there has to be something to be said for eating at a food court dedicated specifically to gyoza.
All in all, close enough to Tokyo and interesting enough to make it an ideal day-trip for those otherwise reluctant to venture out on their own, and perfect for seeing a little of Japan's "other side". Highly recommended.
Been to Utsunomiya? What did you think? Where's your favourite gyoza place? Any recommendations? Comment below or Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan