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Childhood memories power revival of Japan gyoza dumpling business in vending machine form

Takemasa Suzuki, right, speaks about the revival of Gyoza Micchan House in front of the dumpling maker's vending machine in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, on June 26, 2021. At left is original Gyoza Micchan House owner Michiko Sekine. (Mainichi/Hinako Kikuchi)

TAKASAKI, Gunma -- In 2019, despite the towering popularity of its gyoza dumplings with their pronounced garlic punch, Gyoza Micchan House in this city's Namie area was forced to close. In June this year, it made its triumphant return, in the form of a gyoza-packed vending machine.

    The revival was thanks to 57-year-old real estate company chief Takemasa Suzuki, a childhood friend of original Gyoza Micchan House owner Michiko Sekine, 56. Suzuki turned the gyoza shop into a gyoza factory, aiming to recreate its handmade flavor in the form of frozen dumplings.

    They flipped the switch on the frozen gyoza vending machine outside the shop on June 19, a drab and drizzly day. Despite the weather, a long line had already formed in front of the machine before its 10 a.m. opening time, most of them fans of the original Gyoza Micchan. One such enthusiast was 30-year-old local Tomoko Ogasawara, who told the Mainichi Shimbun with a grin, "I'm really looking forward to eating the dumplings, because it's been so long since I've had them."

    The original store was take-out only, selling six-packs of gyoza for 200 yen (about $1.80). The dumplings were bursting with cabbage, garlic chives and other vegetables, but their real claim to fame was their intense garlic flavor.

    "It was impossible to stop eating them. They were fantastic with a beer," said Suzuki of the original gyoza. The new frozen versions come 30 to a package for 1,000 yen (about $9.00). If you cook them according to the included instructions, you ought to get the same great taste of the originals. There are in fact two vending machines: the one by the store, and another in the parking lot of the Tonan Futsal Club Takasaki's court. On their first day, they sold out of their entire stock of 400 packages totaling 12,000 gyoza in about two hours.

    Original Gyoza Micchan owner Sekine rushed to the shop vending machine on its first day and said, "This revival is thanks to the coordinated efforts of many people. To the regular customers who have been kind enough to come today, they have my sincere thanks."

    Sekine opened Gyoza Micchan House in 2013, after working to recreate the unforgettable flavor of the gyoza stand she and Suzuki used to frequent as children. She was also an electric meter reader, so she would open the shop in the late afternoon for 2 1/2 hours. Despite the odd hours, she soon built up a following of enthusiastic regulars. However, she was forced to close in the fall of 2019 due to work scheduling conflicts.

    The customer most disappointed by the end of Gyoza Micchan was Suzuki, the man who shared Sekine's memories of that local dumpling stand.

    "I'd been seeking that flavor for 45 years, and I could finally have it again," Suzuki said of Sekine's gyoza. "And I thought, what will happen to our gyoza situation now?" In the midst of this agonized nostalgia, Suzuki decided he would become the owner. He began serious preparations to relaunch Gyoza Micchan in the fall of 2020, and by automating part of the gyoza-making process and introducing the vending machines, he found a way to keep on supplying this taste of his childhood.

    "You have to try them at least once. They're really good," said Suzuki. Next, he has plans to boost the number of gyoza vending machines to 10 as early as the end of the year, and is even considering expanding beyond Gunma Prefecture.

    (Japanese original by Hinako Kikuchi, Maebashi Bureau)

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