On its southern borders Tokyo merges with YOKOHAMA (横浜), Japan’s second most populous city (home to 3.6 million people) and a major international port. Yokohama feels far more spacious and airy than the capital, thanks to its open harbour frontage and generally low-rise skyline, and though it can’t claim any outstanding sights, the place has enough of interest to justify a day’s outing from Tokyo. Locals are proud of their city’s international heritage, and there’s definitely a cosmopolitan flavour to the place, with its scattering of Western-style buildings, Chinese temples and world cuisines, and its sizeable foreign community. It might seem strange to come all this way to look at nineteenth-century European-style architecture, but the upmarket suburb of Yamate is one of the city’s highlights, an area of handsome residences, church spires and bijou teashops. Yamate’s “exotic” attractions still draw Japanese tourists in large numbers, as do the vibrant alleys and speciality restaurants of nearby Chinatown. There’s a clutch of assorted museums along the seafront, and north to where Kannai boasts a few grand old Western edifices, in complete contrast to the Minato Mirai 21 development’s hi-tech skyscrapers in the distance.
When Commodore Perry sailed his “Black Ships” into Tokyo Bay in 1853, Yokohama was a mere fishing village of some eighty houses on the distant shore. But it was this harbour, well out of harm’s way as far as the Japanese were concerned, that the shogun designated one of the five treaty ports open to foreign trade in 1858. At first foreign merchants were limited to a small compound in today’s Kannai – allegedly for their protection from anti-foreign sentiment – but eventually they moved up onto the more favourable southern hills.
From the early 1860s until the first decades of the twentieth century, Yokohama flourished on the back of raw silk exports, a trade dominated by British merchants. During this period the city provided the main conduit for new ideas and inventions into Japan: the first bakery, photographers, ice-cream shop, brewery and – perhaps most importantly – the first railway line, which linked today’s Sakuragichō with Shimbashi in central Tokyo in 1872. Yokohama was soon established as Japan’s major international port and held pole position until the Great Earthquake levelled the city in 1923, killing more than 40,000 people. It was eventually rebuilt, only to be devastated again in air raids at the end of World War II. By this time Kōbe in western Japan was in the ascendancy and, though Yokohama still figures among the world’s largest ports, it never regained its hold over Japanese trade.