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.Read More
From Yamate, drop down through Motomachi-kōen and cross Motomachi shopping street to find one of the several colourful entrance gates to Chinatown (中華街). Founded in 1863, Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Japan: its streets contain roughly two hundred restaurants and over three hundred shops, while some eighteen million tourists pass through its narrow byways every year to browse stores peddling Chinese herbs or cooking utensils, groceries and garish souvenirs. Few leave without tasting what’s on offer, from steaming savoury dumplings to a full-blown meal in one of the famous speciality restaurants (see Shinkō island).
The focus of community life is Kantei-byō (閑帝廟), a shrine dedicated to Guan Yu, a former general and guardian deity of Chinatown. The building is a bit cramped, but impressive nonetheless, with a colourful ornamental gateway and writhing dragons wherever you look. It’s ¥500 to enter and see the red-faced, long-haired Guan Yu, but not really worth it. The best times to visit are during the major festivities surrounding Chinese New Year (Jan or Feb), Guan Yu’s birthday (the 24th day of the sixth lunar month; June or July) and Chinese National Day (Oct 1).
From the eastern edge of Chinatown it’s a short hop down to the harbour – aim for the pink-grey Marine Tower. This 106m-high tower, built in 1961 to celebrate the port’s centenary, is supposedly the world’s tallest lighthouse, though it’s better to save your money for the Landmark Tower’s much higher observation deck. In front of the tower, Yamashita-kōen is a pleasant seafront park – more grass than trees – created as a memorial to victims of the Great Earthquake. Here you can pick up a Sea Bass ferry or take a harbour cruise (see Yokohama sightseeing cruises) from the pier beside the Hikawa-maru. This retired passenger liner, also known as the Queen of the Pacific, was built in 1930 for the NYK line Yokohama–Seattle service, though it was commandeered as a hospital ship during World War II. It now serves as a museum (日本郵船氷川丸).
At the south end of Yamashita-kōen, the Doll Museum (Ningyō no Ie; 人形の家) offers a diverting display of dolls from around the world. The vast collection ranges from American “blue-eyed friendship dolls”, sent to Japan in the 1920s at a time of increasing tension between the two countries, to Japanese folk and classical dolls.
Yokohama’s rapid growth in the late nineteenth century was underpinned by a flourishing export trade in raw silk. You can learn all about the practical aspects of silk production at the Silk Museum (シルク博物館), in the Sanbo Centre at the north end of Yamashita-kōen. Opposite the museum, the Ōsanbashi (大さん橋) pier is where cruise ships pull up to berth at Yokohama’s International Passenger Terminal. Originally dating from the late nineteenth century, the pier was rebuilt in 2002 to a beautifully fluid, low-slung design inspired by ocean waves.