Yokohama (横浜) is a vibrant city located 30 minutes south of Tokyo. Its rapid ascent over the past 150 years from a small fishing village to Japan’s second biggest city and key trading port has left Yokohama with a very cosmopolitan feel. It is also home to Japan’s biggest Chinatown, the second tallest tower in Japan (Yokohama Landmark Tower), and Sankeien Garden, an open-air museum exhibiting historic buildings from across the country.
Yokohama owes much to Commodore Perry and his “black ships” that arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853 and forced by the U.S. to open its ports to trade. The Harris Treaty of 1858 stipulated that five ports in Japan would be free trade zones for foreign merchants. Yokohama was not one of them—instead Kanagawa Port had been chosen. However, the Tokugawa shogunate deemed Kanagawa Port to be too close to the Tokaido (the key route that connected Tokyo and Kyoto) for comfort, the concern being that any trouble at the port could result in this supply route being blocked. The decision was therefore taken to build settlements for foreigners in neighboring Yokohama instead, and Japan did so without informing U.S. officials. By the time these officials discovered the irregularity it was too late to turn back the clock—Yokohama had already started on its path to becoming a major trading post. The port opened in 1859 and in 1872 Japan’s first railway line was completed, connecting the city with Shimbashi in Tokyo, and cementing Yokohama’s future.
Yokohama suffered heavily in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and then again in the air raids of World War II, where it was a primary target for the allied forces. Construction began on the Minato Mirai 21 commercial district in 1983 and today it shapes much of Yokohama’s waterfront, offering, among other things, shopping centers, hotels, museums, and an amusement park.
Things to Do
Osanbashi Pier was built in the late 19th century to facilitate the loading and unloading of the ships that came into the Yokohama port. Today boarding gates and shops can be found beneath the modern wooden walkway, but many on the pier are just there for the view looking back onto Yokohama.
Yamashita Park was built on reclaimed land following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and today is one of the most relaxing places in the city. From the park you can clearly see the Hikawa Maru ocean liner which was taken out of service in 1960 and now serves as a museum.
Yamate was the area where foreigners lived in the years after Yokohama port opened for trade. Harbour View Park located at the top of the hill provides one of the best views of Yokohama port and also has a rose garden and Western-style cemetery. You can walk up the hill from the Motomachi shopping district to the view point at the top which looks over the Minato Mirai area.
Yokohama Chinatown was established by Chinese immigrants the year after the Harris Treaty ended Japan’s 250 years of isolationism and opened up the country to foreign trade. It is the largest Chinatown in Japan with over 600 restaurants and shops. Kuan Ti Miao Temple in the middle of the area has roots dating back to 1862.
Standing almost 300m tall, the Landmark Tower provides the best night view of the harbor area. You can also make the boast of having ridden the fastest elevator in Japan (it takes just 40 seconds to arrive at the observation deck on the 69th floor). The Yokohama Plaza on the first five floors of the building contains restaurants and shops.
These two structures were formerly customs warehouses for Yokohama port. They underwent extensive renovation before re-opening in 2002. Today they contain small boutiques, craft shops, and a handful of restaurants and cafes. Open-air events are often held in the surrounding plaza.