Utsunomiya, city of festivals, gyoza, cocktails, ohya stone, blossoms and romance is best experienced on foot or by bicycle. So, where to go, what to see?
Let’s start with Utsunomiya Castle Ruins Park near City Hall. The park opened in 2007, after the walls, turrets and moat were rebuilt, and plum and early blossoming cherry trees planted. Pass by in the evening when the turrets and castle wall are illuminated.
The largest park downtown isHachimanyama. Visit in April for the cherry blossom festival, May for the azaleas, July and August for water play at the playground, and November for the fall colors. Check out the park’s bird zoo, roller slides, go-cart circuit, suspension bridge, and Utsunomiya Tower. The park is romantic in the evening when both the tower and suspension bridge are lit up.
For more romance, in April cherry blossoms, May carp streamers and October cosmos, follow the path alongside the Tagawa just west of the station (Cosmos Road about 2 km southward). Another floral promenade, Nakayoshi Yuhoudo, leads south for several kilometers from Central Park (Chuo Koen). Central Park itself is particularly spectacular when the leaves turn color in November, and in June, when roses and irises bloom in opposite ends of the park.
The prettiest walk downtown, is the 2 km cobblestone Kamugawa Promenade which crosses the covered shopping arcade Orion Dori. This walk is especially lovely in the evening when it is illuminated, and in April, when cherry blossoms reflect over the water. Stick to Orion Dori on rainy days.
As you explore Utsunomiya, notice the limestone garden walls and warehouses (kura). Some of these warehouses have been converted into restaurants. The stone comes from Ohya, about 10 km west of town where you can explore an underground quarry used to manufacture airplanes during WWII, visit a temple set into a cave with ancient Buddhist figures sculpted into the wall, climb to the head of a towering Heiwa Kannon statue, or visit a stoneware gift shop.
The most beautiful building in Utsunomiya, Matsugamine Church, is constructed of Ohya stone. Get there by following Symbol Dori, a street lined with horse chestnut trees connecting City Hall and the Prefecture Office. Turn uphill near the biggest tree, which is not a chestnut tree but a gingko tree.
Gingko trees, such as the one just mentioned, are literally a highlight of the city, brightening up such places as City Hall, Akebono Park, Utsunomiya University (check out their fall festival) and Kiohara Park with their bright yellow leaves each autumn.
An evening stroll downtown should include refreshments. The city boosts many award-winning bartenders. Maps of bars serving cocktails can be picked up at Utsunomiya Station. Come for the Cocktail Festival held downtown in May. Western visitors may also delight in Yatai Yokocho, near PARCO, a complex of tiny shops serving drinks and snacks, each seating only six to eight patrons. For those who prefer beer, check out Tochigi Microbrewery.
You will need stamina for all this walking and gyoza is said to give stamina. Amongst dozens of shop, the easiest to find downtown are: Gyoza Kan, at the east exit of JR Utsunomiya Station where a plate of 12 different types of gyoza costs ¥800, Ming Ming’s, across from PARCO just off the main street, or venture down to Kirasse! in the basement of Donkey Hotte Supermarket (near PARCO) whose menu offers 26 varieties of gyoza. Utsunomiya hosts a Gyoza Festival during the first weekend in November.
Don’t come to Utsunomiya without attending a festival. Festivals rock this town every month of the year, celebrating everything great about the city: gyoza, cocktails, spring blossoms, Japan Cup Cycling, fireworks, hot air balloons, local culture, even the international community who live here.
Find out how to rent a bicycle for ¥100/day, pick up a map and directions, and find out about local festivals at JR Utsunomiya Station Information (8am–9pm).