It’s time for ‘Japan by Prefecture‘ again! This is the series that aims to provide the highlights of each prefecture of Japan, along with my personal favourites and suggestions from readers. This week, we’re looking at Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県).
Tochigi Prefecture is part of the Kanto region (関東地方), just north of Tokyo. The capital city is Utsunomiya (宇都宮市). As Japan Australia mentioned in last week’s comments, Utsunomiya is known for its gyoza (ギョーザ / 餃子). These fried dumplings filled with meat and vegetables, usually served with a soy-vinegar dipping source, are a variant of Chinese dumplings. There are apparently over 200 restaurants specialising in gyoza in Tochigi prefecture!
According to CNN:
“After World War 2, Japanese soldiers stationed in Manchuria returned home to Utsunomiya with secret Chinese dumpling recipes in hand. These repatriated soldiers proceeded to open dumpling houses throughout the city. In 1990, city officials became aware that Utsunomiya residents consumed more gyoza per capita that anyone else in Japan. This discovery naturally led to the creation of the Utsuomiya Gyoza Association, which promoted a new wave of gyoza culture. Their work culminated in the commission of the Gyoza Statue — an impressive work of a stylized Venus emerging, not from an oyster shell, but from a giant gyoza wrapper. The humble gyoza had finally succeeded in putting once-obscure Utsunomiya on the map. Revenues from gyoza-themed tourism now bring millions of yen into the city every year.”
The most famous, and most visited, city in Tochigi Prefecture has to be Nikko (日光), which I was lucky enough to visit as a day trip from Tokyo back in 2011. Even though I barely scratched the surface in a day, Nikko left a huge impression on me and I absolutely loved it! Nikko is most famous for the Toshogo shrine (東照宮) which is the final resting place of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康). The shrine is beautifully decorated and absolutely fascinating – so very different to other shrines in Japan which can be much plainer.
The shrine buildings are covered in colourful and elaborate carvings, including the famous sleeping cat and ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’ monkeys.
Nikko is part of Nikko National Park (日光国立公園) which spreads over four prefectures: Tochigi, Gunma, Fukushima and Niigata. Nikko National Park is a beautiful area, known for Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) and Kegon Waterfall (華厳の滝), and it’s a top spot for autumn leaf viewing in mid to late October.
Finally, a less famous town in Tochigi Prefecture which I still think is worth a mention is Mashiko (益子). Mashiko is famous for its pottery – mashikoyaki (益子焼) – which dates back to the Jomon (縄文時代) (12,000 BC – 300 BC) and Yayoi (弥生時代) (300 BC – 300 AD) periods. Traditionally Mashiko pottery is quite plain in style, but these days all sorts of pottery can be found in Mashiko. Tokyo born potter Shoji Hamada (濱田 庄司) (1894 – 1978) is often credited with making Mashiko the world-renowned pottery centre that it is today. After spending a few years living in England in the early 1920s, working with potter Bernard Leach (1887 – 1979), Hamada established his own studio in Mashiko and worked using only locally sourced materials. In 1955 he was designated a ‘Living National Treasure‘ (人間国宝).
The Omiyage Section
Tochigi Prefecture’s most famous souvenirs (or ‘omiyage’ / おみやげ) have to be gyoza. Pictured below, top left, are Reito Nama Gyoza (frozen pan-fried dumplings). Of course, frozen gyoza aren’t a great souvenir if you’re just in Japan on holiday, but you can also buy all sorts of gyoza-themed snacks (example pictured bottom left). Another famous Tochigi product is Kanpyo (干瓢), which is thinly sliced and dried gourd (pictured top right). It’s commonly used as a sushi filling. Tochigi is also Japan’s largest producer of strawberries, and there have been Tochigi Strawberry Kit Kats before (pictured bottom right). As with all areas of Japan, you can always buy snacks and lucky charms on the theme of whatever is famous there, too. In Tochigi, you’ll find lots of things on the theme of Nikko’s sleeping cat and three wise monkeys.
Next week I will be writing about Gunma (群馬県). Have you been there? What’s good to eat there and what omiyage should I buy? What are the best sightseeing spots or hidden gems? Please do share your thoughts below, and join me next week for Japan by Prefecture!