A blend of old and new
Nowhere in Japan are the old and the new, the homegrown and the foreign, the modern and the traditional brought together as in Yokohama. Other cities in Japan do not seem to care that they have lost their souls to concrete and glass blocks that tower over temples, traditional gardens and the narrow back streets of age-old
shitamachi districts. And while Yokohama’s skyline has certainly changed, the city’s elders have managed to link progress to the city’s history, making it arguably the most international and culturally diverse metropolis in the country.
Home now to more than 3.7 million people, Yokohama is Japan’s second-largest city. But in 1849, it was a sleepy village of around 100 homes whose inhabitants made a living as fishermen supplying the city that was growing into Tokyo, less than 30 kilometres away.
Fate intervened in that year, when US Navy commodore Matthew Perry landed a few kilometres to the south and requested that Japan open up to international trade after 200 years of self-imposed isolation.
Four years later, the Tokugawa shogunate agreed to transfer international access to Yokohama, and the hamlet began its evolution.
Today, the oldest reminders of the roots of Yokohama’s foreign community – when it was a gated foreign settlement in the Kannai district, where the baseball stadium now stands – have been preserved in The Bluff district.
Overlooking the Nakamura River and the up-market Motomachi shopping street – where shops sell Mikimoto pearls and Kitamura handbags – the hill rises to the area where embassies and the homes of wealthy business people were constructed, taking advantage of the cooler summer breezes and overlooking all that went on in the harbour.
A good portion of The Bluff is taken up by the heavily wooded Yokohama foreign general cemetery. And while a visit may sound macabre, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who have made this city their
“Home now to more than 3.7 million people, Yokohama is Japan’s second-largest city.”
home down the years. The 4200 tombs include adventurers, sailors, artists and ordinary folk – including many who were victims of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake.
The quake triggered fires and a tsunami. With so many buildings in the old waterfront district destroyed, it was decided that the debris would be used to construct an open area on the seafront, known as Yamashita Park. It is a A favourite today among young couples: the waves lap the stonework and buskers perform amid fountains and a rose garden. Moored off the front lies the Hikawa Maru, a luxury passenger liner launched in 1929 to sail between Japan and the US.
In its heyday, the liner carried royalty and stars of the silver screen – including Charlie Chaplin.
Today, it is protected as a time capsule and visitors can see its state rooms, smoking lounges and stand on the bridge – before stopping by the stern promenade deck for ice-cold beers and traditional Japanese summer snacks accompanied by a live jazz band.
Just inland from the park stands the renovated Marine Tower. At 106 metres, it is listed as the tallest lighthouse in the world – and a block further inland is the buzzing Chinatown district.
The boundaries of the district are marked by four main gates and six smaller but equally elaborately designed entrance ways. The four larger gateways are sited at the four points of the compass and invoke demi-gods, such as dragons and tigers. Similar traditional architectural designs form part of the Kantei-Byo Temple, constructed in 1862.
Other parts of the city have undergone significant redevelopment in recent years, such as the Bayside Area, a reclaimed island that was already home to the vast World Porters shopping mall – with arguably the best sushi in Yokohama at the Misaki-Megumi restaurant – and the Yokohama Cosmo World theme park, which can be spotted from anywhere in the city thanks to its colossal Ferris wheel.
The area around the main train station is home to some of Japan’s top department stores, but venture a little further away and explore the streets where the uniquely Japanese game of
pachinko pinball is played in raucous arcades, and stalls sell grilled yakitori skewers.