Foodie hotspots: Utsunomiya, Nikko, Sano, Kaminokawa-cho, Tochigi, Yunishigawa hot-springs.
Foodies Look Out For: Nikko yuba; Ayu sweetfish; soba buckwheat noodles, Utsunomiya gyoza; Sano ramen; mimi udon, yakisoba, strawberries, sake.
The Basics: Like its neighbor and rival Gunma, Tochigi straddles the northern part of the Kanto plain and the foothills and mountains further north up to the Fukushima border. This geographical divide is reflected in its food culture, with traditional items still found in the mountains, and the more modern arrivals down on the lowland plain, within easy access of Tokyo.
Foodies Go Tochigi: Tochigi in a foodie sense is very much old skool versus new skool. Up in the mountains around Nikko, with the famous and unmissable Toshugu Shrine and picturesque Lake Chuzenji, and at Nasu Kogen, expect traditional mountain food, such as soba noodles or ayu sweetfish, with a twist of Shogun-pleasing luxury. The latter is expressed in Nikko by its traditional yuba fare, or yuba-ryori.
Yuba is a bi-product of the tofu making process, the skin that is formed on the top of soymilk when it is heated. It contains 52% protein and is high in natural sugars, which made it a fine food for country-dwelling folk who wanted a little luxury with their protein. Yuba takes time to make, thus is higher in price than, for example, its humble cousin tofu. In eastern Japan, Nikko is the place to find it. It is wholly vegetarian, and thus used in shojin-ryori. Ebiya and the lesser-known Yubatei Masudaya are the yuba maestros.
Yuba can be preserved by drying, a handy quality in the centuries before refrigeration. Kanpyo fits the same category. It is the sun-dried skin of a gourd, usually used in soups. It also creates a vegetarian dashi stock when steeped in hot water, making it another shojin-ryori staple. It has been developed into a whole cuisine in Kaminokawa-cho, south of Utsunomiya city.
For rural dining at its best, head to the wholly unique Honke Bankyu at Yunishigawa onsen. It's a fabulous place, in business since 1666 no less. Yunishigawa was one of the mountain retreats to which the defeated Heike clan fled - the heike no ochiudo - and its kaiseki cuisine is heavily influenced by Heike customs. Expect to find sanshouo giant salamander on the menu alongside your sashimi. We've stayed here many times. The baths are superb too. The dead of winter, in the deep snow, is our favorite. Access is by the Tobu line from Tokyo's Asakusa station.
Utsunomiya is Tochigi’s main, most cosmopolitan city, and it is here that the prefecture’s best-known modern foodstuff is found: the Utsunomiya gyoza. When this writer visited for the first time three decades ago, there was hardly a dumpling in sight, but now the culinary import from the Asian mainland is ubiquitous. Its great rival in the gyoza stakes is Hamamatsu in Shizuoka, but Utsunomiya has held the title ‘No 1 Dumpling City’ for all but one year – 2011, the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake – since 1996.
Gyoza are also sometimes called ‘pot-stickers’, and the story is that they were brought to Tochigi by soldiers returning from the Russo-Japanese war which you will find fried, grilled, or steamed. Whatever phrase you prefer, Utsunomiya has around 300 specialists in the dish. Masashi, Men Men and Kirasse, are extremely popular, but why not seek out the hidden stars: Goku and Kouran.
Sano is an unremarkable industrial town, a quiet stop on the Ryomo train line in Western Tochigi, yet it has spawned two foodie success stories in Sano ramen and mimi udon. The former is a tasty, light soy-sauce based soup (see the Ramen Professor recommends). The town’s other claim to fame is mimi udon, literally ‘ear udon’ a type of flat, white, wheat noodle that gets its name from its resemblance to the earlobe of a demon, no less. It was traditionally eaten at New Year to avert disaster and sickness. Nomuraya Honten, Nomuraya Shiten, and the eponymous Mimi Udon in Sano are specialists.
The Tochigi Budget Gourmet
Of course gyoza, Sano ramen, Mimi udon, but also Utsunomiya yakisoba, and the challenging Yakisoba burger – a carbohydrate explosion of fried noodles in a burger bun. Also check out the shinshoga ginger soft cream and other oddities at the pleasantly bonkers New Ginger Museum just east of Tochigi station on the Ryomo train line.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Sano ramen has grown in popularity over the years. With a light taste with soy-sauce base, it is pleasantly satisfying without leaving that ‘ate too much’ after effect that you’ll get from heavier varieties. The noodles are beaten with green bamboo to properly aerate them, and the water is – in theory at least – from freshwater springs. In Sano, the ramen shops are at a slight remove from the town’s two railway stations. Moritaya Souhonten is convenient to the North of Tobu Sano station, Tamuraya is famed, but we prefer to jump in a taxi to either Ittetsu or, best of all, Horaiken.
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