Finding the Gyoza Capital of Japan ・ Where Are Japan’s Most Delicious Dumplings?

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Gyoza are simple dumplings eaten as casual fare, but a fierce gyoza battle has long been brewing between the cities of Japan.

The Wonderful World of Japanese Gyoza

The little dumplings we call "gyoza" (餃子) actually originate from China, and are still (to some extent) considered Chinese food in Japan. But over the decades, these delectably savory dough-wrapped morsels have become a permanent fixture in Japan, as a standard size dish with ramen or a great match for a frosty mug of beer. These days, they're such common local fare that regions and restaurants all over Japan offer their own takes on the classic, and some regional gyoza variations have become so popular that they've made a name for themselves across the country.

To find the best gyoza in Japan, perhaps it's no surprise that dumpling experts like to rank the different varieties and establish which regions are hotspots for delicious gyoza, in the same way that Japan has almost-official rankings like the "Three Great Gardens," "Three Great Waterfalls," or the "Three Great Festivals of Edo." But when it comes to gyoza, the top-three approach has run into a bit of an obstacle over the past decade: two cities are so famous for their delicious gyoza, that they're fiercely battling for the #1 spot, and poor old #3 tends to get left behind. Our top competitors are the city of Utsunomiya, in Tochigi Prefecture, and the city of Hamamatsu, not far from Mt. Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture.



What’s This Battle All About?

How exactly are Utsunomiya and Hamamatsu battling it out? Well, this competition isn't only about quality, but about quantity too. Each year, through a Home Statistics survey, Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications asks households all over Japan about what and when they're eating, and it turns out how many gyoza each household consumes is an important national statistic. Thanks to that valuable information, we now know that since the year 2009―for over a decade―these two gyoza-obsessed cities have taken up the number 1 and 2 spots, consistently eating more gyoza per household than any other city in Japan. According to a Nikkei report, the two cities have even been switching off each year for the past five years, taking turns at number one. In the 2020 statistics, published recently, Hamamatsu has come out on top, replacing Utsunomiya.



Image Source: The Nikkei

Of course, for travelers just looking to grab a bite of the tastiest gyoza around, these statistics are less important than flavor. When it comes to the regional gyoza themselves, the origins of both Utsunomiya and Hamamatsu gyoza are similar. After World War II, troops that had been stationed in Manchuria (the north-eastern tip of China) returned to Japan with a taste for the local dumplings they had eaten while overseas, starting the gyoza trend all over the country. But what happened from there, in the kitchens of home cooks and local eateries, as chefs tailored the dumplings to local tastes―that's what has transformed the simple gyoza into a fantastic regional array!

Utsunomiya Gyoza: Fresh, Light, and Varied

Any non-vegetarian dumpling lover will know that for most gyoza, the filling for these savory little nuggets is mostly made up of meat, with a sprinkling of vegetables and other seasonings for flavor. In Utsunomiya, however, the ratio is flipped upside-down! A mix of vegetables makes up most of the body of the filling, with just a little ground meat added for flavor. Even when fried up hot and crispy, the result is a more refreshing dumpling with a relatively low price to boot, and that makes Utsunomiya gyoza popular among students and anyone looking for a lighter meal.

The dipping sauce for Utsunomiya gyoza has something of a lighter feel, too. In most gyoza spots around Japan, you'll see customers mixing up their own blend of soy sauce, vinegar, and perhaps a dash of chili oil. In Utsunomiya, this blend tends to be especially vinegar-heavy, cutting right through the rich greasiness of the fried dumplings for a clean bite.



One last feature of Utsunomiya gyoza is the variety, which is clear when visiting the city's many gyoza shops. The dumplings are pan-fried, boiled, and deep-fried, with simple fillings of cabbage, chives, and ground pork, or unique fillings including fun additions and toppings like mentaiko (明太子, spicy cod roe) or cheese. The "Utsunomiya gyoza" has a fairly loose definition, not very strictly maintained, but generally promoted by organizations like the Utsunomiya Gyoza Association. Travelers looking to see what Utsunomiya gyoza are all about can visit shops like Kirasse (Japankuru stopped by a few years back), a gyoza-only food court run by the Gyoza Association, with counters from some of the city's most popular gyoza shops, including the famous Minmin.

Unfortunately, not every popular gyoza shop in the city is part of the Utsunomiya Gyoza Association, which means it might be worth checking out some other shops to see what else the world of Utsunomiya gyoza has to offer. On a recent trip, a Tochigi-native tour guide told the Japankuru team that his personal favorite was a shop on somewhat rocky terms with the Gyoza Association, a place called Masashi. The gleaming recommendation made it clear that we had a new restaurant to try next time we were in Utsunomiya!

No matter where you try your Utsunomiya gyoza, one way to eat like a local is to order boiled gyoza, and then pour your "dipping sauce" right into the bowl instead of using a little dish!



Hamamatsu Gyoza: Simple and Savory

"Hamamatsu gyoza" refers generally to dumplings made in the city of Hamamatsu, but the title has slightly more specific requirements than the name "Utsunomiya gyoza" does. For one, gyoza shops in Hamamatsu need to be established and running for at least three years before they can adopt the official title of "Hamamatsu gyoza." On top of that, the image of the Hamamatsu gyoza tends to be a little more set in stone. These dumplings tend towards very simple fillings, made mostly of pork meat and some kind of onion or chive.

The real flare of Hamamatsu comes out when they're cooked. Google "Hamamatsu gyoza," and you'll find one picture after another featuring beautiful rings of perfectly pan-fried gyoza, served unbroken on a platter with a pile of bright white beansprouts at the center. This iconic serving style for Hamamatsu gyoza was developed by the early street vendors who made gyoza popular in the city. With just small round pans available to fry the gyoza in, these small-scale chefs would squeeze as many dumplings as they could manage onto the pans by lining them up around the edge. Of course, this left the street vendors with beautiful rings of golden-brown gyoza, and kind of a sad, empty circle at the center. Soon enough, sellers started filling up the hole with cheap beansprouts, and the fresh crunch of the veggies turned out to be the perfect thing to accompany the city's extra-savory extra-meaty dumplings.



For Hamamatsu gyoza, different shops tend to have their own special recipes, ranging in flavor from sweet to sour, and even some particularly spicy versions. Since Hamamatsu gyoza gain popularity through street vendors, and even more permanent restaurants tend to do a good takeout business, it's a long-lived tradition for shops to offer little containers of sauce for customers to take with them. At first, the sauce came in little aluminum bottles! Nowadays, they've mostly been replaced by plastic packets. Ishimatsu Gyoza, which the Japankuru team visited in early 2020, is not one of the city's more famous gyoza shops (they claim to be the very first gyoza stand established in Hamamatsu!), but they also pride themselves on their unique dipping sauce.

According to the Hamamatsu Gyoza Society, Hamamatsu gyoza aren't just a tasty snack in the city, but a true piece of local culture. Hamamatsu has always been a city of industry, and for many local factory workers, there's nothing better than coming home after a long day of work to see their family making gyoza together at home. Perhaps this heartwarming image is part of what makes the dumplings so delicious―it's almost certainly why the people of Hamamatsu ate more gyoza per household than any other city, last year.



Immersing Yourself in the Fun of Japanese Gyoza Culture

Are you starting to crave gyoza yet? Utsunomiya and Hamamatsu are particularly famous for gyoza in terms of both quality and quantity, and both cities make especially popular varieties of the dumplings (before consuming huge numbers of them), but gyoza are popular all around Japan! In terms of sheer numbers, cities like Miyazaki and Kyoto often make it onto the per household ranking at the #3 spot! And the "Three Great Gyozas" or "Three Gyoza Capitals" of Japan tend to include Hamamatsu and Utsunomiya as two of the three, but cities like Yahata in Fukuoka, or sometimes Yokohama (famous for its Chinatown) are often named as the third city, thanks to their own uniquely delicious gyoza recipes. While exploring Japan, part of the fun is to find unique local specialties wherever you end up, and we'd definitely recommend checking out some of Japan's most famous regional gyoza during your travels. The true gyoza capital of Japan is for you to decide!

For more info and updates from Japan, check Japankuru for new articles, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!



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NAME:Japanese Gyoza

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Japankuru's head Chinese editor: mid-30s, likes to write, draw, and take photos. Aiming to become an old aunty with a girlish look. ・Articles written in Chinese by Lucy Wu, and translated by Sophia Appelbaum.

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      Sapporo, in the south-western part of Hokkaido, is the prefecture's political and economic capital. The local New Chitose Airport see arrivals from major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, alongside international flights. Every February, the Sapporo Snow Festival is held in Odori Park―one of the biggest events in Hokkaido. It's also a hotspot for great food, known as a culinary treasure chest, and Sapporo is a destination for ramen, grilled mutton, soup curry, and of course Hokkaido's beloved seafood.

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      Fukushima Prefecture sits at the southern tip of Japan's northern Tohoku region, and is divided into three parts with their own different charms: the Coastal Area (Hama-dori), the Central Area (Naka-dori), and the Aizu Area. There's Aizu-Wakamatsu with its Edo-era history and medieval castles, Oze National Park, Kitakata ramen, and Bandai Ski Resort (with its famous powder snow). Fukushima is a beautiful place to enjoy the vivid colors and sightseeing of Japan's beloved four seasons.

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      Yamagata Prefecture is up against the Sea of Japan, in the southern part of the Tohoku region, and it's especially popular in winter, when travelers soak in the onsen (hot springs) and ski down snowy slopes. International skiiers are especially fond of Zao Onsen Ski Resort and Gassan Ski Resort, and in recent years visitors have been drawn to the area to see the mystical sight of local frost-covered trees. Some destinations are popular regardless of the season, like Risshakuji Temple, AKA Yamadera, Ginzan Onsen's nostalgic old-fashioned streets, and Zao's Okama Lake, all great for taking pictures. Yamagata is also the place to try Yonezawa beef, one of the top 3 varieties of wagyu beef.

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    • Gunma Prefecture is easily accessible from Tokyo, and in addition to the area's popular natural attractions like Oze Marshland and Fukiware Falls, Gunma also has a number of popular hot springs (Kusatsu, Ikaho, Minakami, Shima)―it's even called an Onsen Kingdom. The prefecture is popular with history buffs and train lovers, thanks to spots like world heritage site Tomioka Silk Mill, the historic Megane-bashi Bridge, and the Watarase Keikoku Sightseeing Railway.

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      Tochigi Prefecture's capital is Utsunomiya, known for famous gyoza, and just an hour from Tokyo. The prefecture is full of nature-related sightseeing opportunities year-round, from the blooming of spring flowers to color fall foliage. Tochigi also has plenty of extremely well-known sightseeing destinations, like World Heritage Site Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Lake Chuzenji, and Ashikaga Flower Park―famous for expansive wisteria trellises. In recent years the mountain resort town of Nasu has also become a popular excursion, thanks in part to the local imperial villa. Tochigi is a beautiful place to enjoy the world around you.

    • Tokyo (東京) is Japan's busy capital, and the most populous metropolitan area in the world. While the city as a whole is quite modern, crowded with skyscrapers and bustling crowds, Tokyo also holds onto its traditional side in places like the Imperial Palace and Asakusa neighborhood. It's one of the world's top cities when it comes to culture, the arts, fashion, games, high-tech industries, transportation, and more.

    • The Chubu Region (中部地方) is located right in the center of Japan's main island, and consists of 9 prefectures: Aichi, Fukui, Gifu, Ishikawa, Nagano, Niigata, Shizuoka, Toyama, and Yamanashi. It's primarily famous for its mountains, as the region contains both Mt. Fuji and the Japanese Alps. The ski resorts in Niigata and Nagano also draw visitors from around the world, making it a popular winter destination.

    • Nagano Prefecture's popularity starts with a wealth of historic treasures, like Matsumoto Castle, Zenkoji Temple, and Togakushi Shrine, but the highlight might just be the prefecture's natural vistas surrounded by the "Japanese Alps." Nagano's fruit is famous, and there are plenty of places to pick it fresh, and the area is full of hot springs, including Jigokudani Monkey Park―where monkeys take baths as well! Thanks to the construction of the Hokuriku shinkansen line, Nagano is easily reachable from the Tokyo area, adding it to plenty of travel itineraries. And after the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, ski resorts like Hakuba and Shiga Kogen are known around the world.

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      Niigata is a prefecture on Japan's main island of Honshu, situated right on the coast of the Sea of Japan, and abundant with the gifts of nature. It's known for popular ski resorts such as Echigo-Yuzawa, Japanese national parks, and natural hot spring baths, plus local products like fresh seafood, rice, and sake. Visitors often spend time in the prefectural capital, Niigata City, or venture across the water to Sado Island.

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      Shizuoka Prefecture is sandwiched between eastern and western Japan, giving the prefecture easy access to both Tokyo and Osaka. Not only is it known for beautiful natural attractions, with everything from Mount Fuji to Suruga Bay, Lake Hamanako, and Sumata Pass―Shizuoka's Izu Peninsula is known as a go-to spot for hot springs lovers, with famous onsen like Atami, Ito, Shimoda, Shuzenji, and Dogashima. Shizuoka attracts all kinds of travelers thanks to historic connections with the Tokugawa clan, the Oigawa Railway, fresh eel cuisine, Hamamatsu gyoza, and famously high-quality green tea.

    • Kansai (関西) is a region that includes Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga Prefectures. Kansai contained Japan's ancient capital for hundreds of years, and it's making a comeback as one of the most popular parts of Japan. Kyoto's temples and shrines, Osaka Castle, and the deer of Nara are all considered must-sees. Plus, the people of Kansai are especially friendly, making it a fun place to hang out.

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    • Nara Prefecture's important history reaches back to 710, a time now called the Nara era, when it was once capital of Japan. Called "Heijo-kyo" during its time as a capital, it's said that nara was once the end of the silk road, leading it to flourish as a uniquely international region and produce important cultural properties of all kinds. To make the most of each season, travelers head to Nara Park, where the Nara deer who wander freely, or climb Mount Yoshino, a famous cherry blossom spot.

    • Osaka is known for friendly (and funny) people, but its history is nothing to laugh at, playing a major part in Toyotomi Hideyoshi's 16th century unification of Japan. Thanks to long years of economic activity, it's one of Japan's biggest cities, and Osaka's popular food culture earned it the nickname "The Kitchen of the Nation." To this day Osaka is the model of western Japan, and alongside historic structures like Osaka Castle, it also has major shopping malls like Umeda's Grand Front Osaka and Tennoji's Abeno Harukas. Osaka is a place to eat, eat, eat, with local specialties like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushi-katsu, and for extra fun, it's home to Universal Studios Japan.

    • CHUGOKU

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      The Chugoku Region (中国地方) consists of five prefectures: Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi. In Chugoku you’ll find the sand dunes of Tottori, and Hiroshima’s atomic bomb site, plus centers of ancient history like Grand Shrine of Izumo.

    • HIROSHIMA

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      Hiroshima Prefecture has everything, from world heritage sites to beautiful nature and delicious local cuisine, and it's either an hour and a half from Tokyo by plane, or four hours by train. Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island and the Atomic Bomb Dome, two Hiroshima UNESCO sites, are famous around the world, but in Japan it's also famous for food. Seafood from the Seto Inland Sea, especially oysters, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, and Setouchi lemons are all popular, and the natural scenery alone is worth seeing.

    • SHIKOKU

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      On the other side of the Seto Inland Sea opposite Japan’s main island, Shikoku (四国) is a region made up of four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kochi, and Tokushima. The area is famous for its udon (in Kagawa), and the beautiful Dogo Onsen hot springs (in Ehime).

    • Kagawa Prefecture is on the northern part of the island of Shikoku, facing Japan's main island and the Seto Inland Sea. It's known for being the smallest prefecture in Japan, by area, but at the same time Kagawa is called the "Udon Prefecture" thanks to its famous sanuki udon. Aside from Kotohiragu Shrine and Ritsurin Garden, the prefecture's small islands are popular, and Kagawa is full of unique destinations, like Angel Road. They say that if you lay eyes on Zenigata Sunae, a huge Kagawa sand painting, you'll never have money troubles ever again.

    • Located in the most southwestern part of Japan, Kyushu (九州) is an island of 7 prefectures: Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki, and Kagoshima. The island's unique culture has been influenced by Chinese and Dutch trade, along with missionaries coming in through Nagasaki's port. Modern-day travelers love the lush natural scenery and fresh food, plus the natural hot springs found all throughout the area (thanks to volcanic activity)!

    • FUKUOKA

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      Fukuoka Prefecture has the highest population on the southern island of Kyushu, with two major cities: Fukuoka and Kitakyushu. Thanks to growing transportation networks, Fukuoka is more accessible than ever, and so are the many local attractions. On top of historical spots like Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, travelers shouldn't miss Fukuoka's food scene, with motsu nabe (offal hotpot), mentaiko (spicy cod roe), and famous Hakata ramen―best eaten from a food stall in the Nakasu area of Hakata. Plus, it's full of all sorts of destinations for travelers, like trendy shopping centers, and the beautiful nature of Itoshima and Yanagawa.

    • KAGOSHIMA

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      Kagoshima Prefecture played a major role in Japan's modernization as a backdrop for famous historical figures like samurais Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi, who pushed Japan out of the Edo era and into the Meiji. Because of that, Sengan-en Garden is just one of many historical destinations, and when it comes to attractions Kagoshima has plenty: the active volcano of Sakurajima, popular hot springs Ibusuki Onsen and Kirishima Onsen, World Heritage Site Yakushima Island, even what Japan calls the "island closest to heaven," Amami Oshima. Kagoshima might be found on the very southernmost tip of the southern island of Kyushu, but there's plenty to see.

    • OKINAWA

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      The island chain of Okinawa (沖縄) makes up the southernmost tip of Japan, which is why it's also the most tropical area in the country. Thanks to a history of independence and totally distinct political and cultural events, Okinawa has a unique culture, and remnants of the Ryukyu Kingdom are still visible all over the islands. Food, language, traditional dress, it's all a little different! It's also said to be the birthplace of karate.

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