Tochigi Prefecture is no stranger to welcoming overseas visitors. Home to several amazing national parks, as well as a cluster of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there’s a lot to do in this area of Japan. Alas, when it comes to Tochigi Prefecture’s capital city of Utsunomiya, most travelers simply elect to continue on to the popular destinations of Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen. While this is entirely understandable given how awesome these spots actually are, Utsunomiya deserves more credit than it receives. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you, the reader, will consider budgeting a little extra time to explore this underappreciated location.
Utsunomiya’s roots originate within the early mists of time. Allegedly, the area has been settled since as far back as the Jomon period (14,00–300 BCE). The oldest written records of Utsunomiya hint that the city grew up around its central Utsunomiya Futarasan Shrine. Seeing this site was allegedly found in the year 353, that would make Utsunomiya over 1,600 years-old. From what I read while doing a bit of digging, Utsunomiya was controlled by a branch of the influential Fujiwara clan until it was later leveled by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s three great unifiers. Thereafter, Utsunomiya went on to be an important hub that linked Tokyo (then called Edo) with Nikko.
Though Utsunomiya is today a modern industrial city, the capital of Tochigi Prefecture has deep roots in the mining industry. Speaking specifically, the local oya stone (which is named after the truly ancient Oya-ji temple complex seen above) has been highly prized over the ages and has been featured in structures all over Japan. Considered to be of top notch quality from an aesthetic perspective, the local material is a tough rock that is composed of finely-tied volcanic detritus. Thanks to this, the rock is both visually appealing while also being highly resistant to heat. These days, oya stone is used to create a range of distinct decorative walls, unique facades, and striking sculptures.
While the local oya stone has played a critical role in Utsunomiya’s past, the city is now known for something else — gyoza. These small dumplings are filled with meat and/or vegetables and succulently served pan-fried, deep fried, or boiled. All throughout Utsunomiya, you’ll find countless spots that specialize in serving gyoza. Given these amazing options for piping hot goodness, is it any surprise that Utsunomiya is known as one of the cities with the highest per-capita consumptions of gyoza? The city often battles with its rival Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture (another city I happened to visit this year) over the title of gyoza champion.
How Utsunomiya became so enamored with gyoza is in and of itself an interesting tale. According to the Wikipedia entry, Japanese soldiers returning from World War II brought the recipe from China. Before long, these weary veterans started opening their own restaurants in Utsunomiya. The rest is history; the popularity of gyoza quickly began to bubble up on its own. These days, gyoza are so beloved in Utsunomiya that there’s a 1.5-meter tall statue in the shape of the gyoza directly outside of the main train station.
Getting to Utsunomiya
When it comes to off of the beaten path destinations, getting to Utsunomiya is about as easy as it comes. All you need to do is take a bullet train from Tokyo Station to Utsunomiya Station. The entire journey will take around forty-five minutes or so but be sure to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service for train schedules. While departures north from Tokyo Station aren’t exactly what one would call “infrequent,” they aren’t as regular as trains bound for Kyoto and Osaka. Do yourself a favor and do the five minutes of homework needed to calculate your route.
Given its proximity to Nikko, Utsunomiya combines quite well with a trip to the spiritual enclave located there. As such, you’d do well to get an early start so that you can check out Utsunomiya’s highlights before continuing on. Assuming you’re not hankering for a cold beer and some gyoza at night, most of Utsunomiya can be written off in approximately half of a day. That said, one challenge will be transportation. While there are buses, the train lines don’t service the top attractions whatsoever. If you can, I highly suggest you to either rent a car or just bite the bullet and pay for a taxi. Though expensive, it’s well worth not needing to navigate the bus routes.
While I was in Utsunomiya for Tokyo Creative’s Host Town Relay, I overheard that there are taxi services that can be hired for the day. For those of you who can’t drive like me, this might be a solid alternative. Alas, you’ll likely need to overcome the challenge of the language barrier to do so. If you’re not confident in your Japanese skills, instead, try asking the tourism information office in Utsunomiya Station to help you make a reservation. While I can’t vet their English ability first hand, I imagine they’ve dealt with plenty of lost tourists who are trying to reach Nikko.
What to See in Utsunomiya
In addition to gobbling some gyoza, there are numerous attractions within the confines of Utsunomiya and the surrounding areas. That said, access to these hidden allures isn’t the best. Moreover, most of the spots on the subsequent list are strewn all about the city. To see them all, you’ll really want to be able to get around without needing to wait for the bus. As always I’ll include some Google Map links to help you get your bearings…
As far as I am concerned, this antiquated temple complex is THE reason to come to Utsunomiya. Built directly into the oya stone cliffside, Oya-ji is a temple that dates from the early 800’s. Supposedly, it was founded by none other than the legendary monk, Kukai. During one of his many escapades, Kukai is said to have carved a large stone statue of the deity Kannon here. Pictured above, the sculpture is the principal image of worship at Oya-ji and considered to be the oldest stone Buddhist carving in Japan. Along with nine other etchings of various Buddhas, Oya-ji’s works all hold the designation of National Important Cultural Properties.
- Heiwa Kannon
Found but a mere stone’s throw away from Oya-ji, the Heiwa Kannon is a 27-meter tall effigy that was erected in 1956 in honor of those who died in World War II. Unlike Oya-ji, which will run you 500 yen to enter, the Heiwa Kannon stands in open space and therefore can be enjoyed free of charge. Be sure not to miss it!
- Oya History Museum
This massive, man-made cavern is a former oya stone quarry that was originally developed back in the Edo period (1603–1868). The extensive network spans over 20,000 square-meters; a large section of the cavern welcomes spelunkers. Be sure to bring along something warm as the quarry is many degrees colder than the outside temperature. Oddly, the Oya History Museum is often rented out as an event space. You’ll regularly see concerts, weddings, and art exhibitions being held within.
- Utsunomiya Futarasan Shrine
These days, this shrine isn’t something that you’d come all the way to Utsunomiya to see. That said, it’s nevertheless critical to the history of the city as Utsunomiya grew up around the shrine. Of all the locations listed here, it is the easiest to access on foot from Utsunomiya Station.
- Utsunomiya Castle Ruins Park
While only the ruined stone walls remain today, Utsunomiya Castle is a stronghold that played a historic role during the Boshin War. Tokugawa loyalists retreated here on their way to Nikko and Aizu-Wakamatsu. The fort was leveled during the following clash however you can still inspect the castle ruins which have been transformed into a park.
In addition to the above spots, there are several museums to consider as well. Looking over Google Maps, I can see that the Tochigi Prefectural Museum and the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts are located relatively close to Utsunomiya Futarasan Shrine. While I cannot say for sure if these will be worth a visit due to not having been myself, art fans may want to do a bit of their own research on the curations.
Attractions Near Utsunomiya
Given that it’s located directly on the way, Utsunomiya combines well with any trip to the sacred sites of Nikko. All you need to do is budget for an extra half of a day or so for Oya-ji, gyoza, other such fun. While Nikko is indeed a fantastic location, the area remains firmly situated on the beaten path. Because of this, I want to close out this article on Utsunomiya by recommending another nearby spot that I recently discovered. Known as Furumine Shrine, this ancient sanctuary is known for its impressive collection of tengu masks. What’s more, the grounds are also nothing short of spectacular during autumn.
If you’d like to learn more about Furumine Shrine, I highly suggest that you give my standalone article on the site a read. If you’re going to visit in conjunction with Utsunomiya, you’ll really need to get going early in the morning unless you have a rental car. The bus schedules are just too infrequent to squeeze both adventures into a single day.
Until next time travelers…