The first thing anyone usually notices when entering Yokohama’s famous Chinatown is always the food. There are restaurants, food stores, street stalls and signs advertising food just about everywhere. After a good deal of food thinking, the second thing most people notice is the fact that they are completely lost. Chinatown is not big, you can walk across it in a few minutes but still people invariably find themselves lost and have no idea how to return to where they came from or how to find their bearings once they exit the Chinatown area. It happens to me every single time I visit and it gives a sort of strange pleasurable “spatial slip” where it really feels like I have just entered a different reality. Exiting the area dumps me back into the normal world, with the addition that I am always completely lost. It is fun but slightly disturbing.
Looking at the map of Chinatown easily explains the phenomena though. While all streets in Yokohama are roughly parallel to the shoreline, the streets in Chinatown are all at a very confusing 45 degree angle to the rest of the city. Some people attribute this to Feng Shui being applied in the original town planning by the Chinese who lived here but this is just an urban myth as the town streets were laid out before there were any Chinese people nor any Feng Shui anywhere near Yokohama. In reality the reason is a little more complicated, but mostly due to the fact that this part of Yokohama is built on reclaimed land. The area between Chinatown and the shoreline was once a long narrow lick of land made up of river deposits. This area was picked as a good place to house foreigners and to minimize their contact with the rest of the Yokohama more towards the mainland. But on one speck of land between the mainland, the bay and the Horikawa river there was the small village of Yokohama-Nitta which had plots of land and rice fields already laid out parallel to the meandering Horikawa river (which is still around but now locked in place). When the Shogun government wanted this piece of land for foreign use exclusively he ordered the residents to leave and paid them according to the amount of land they gave up. Hence the old footpaths and plots were kept intact (to make payment of compensation easier) and by the time the Chinese had settled there it was too late to change the street pattern. In time the inland bay was reclaimed and the straight street pattern that makes Yokohama so different from Tokyo had developed around Chinatown. You can see it on the map at the end of the post. I love that when I walk on the streets of Chinatown I am still following the footpaths laid out by the original rice farmers of Yokohama-Nitta village, many hundreds of years ago.
Although most of the original Chinese who settled here were from the Guangzhou (Canton) area, these days there are all sorts Chinese and Taiwanese people, as you can see in the flags and menus of these photos. While walking around I stopped to get one the most famous Chinese dishes of the area, the “nikuman” which is a soft steamed bun with meat filling. You can get them in any convenience store in Japan but the ones here are supposed to be better! And of course, the must have of any China Town, the peking duck show window! If you are into Chinese food you will love the Chukagai (中華街, Chinatown).
Being so close to China it is no mystery that Japan would have a few well developed Chinatowns and the one in Yokoahma, the Chukagai, is the biggest of all of them. The history of Yokohama Chinatown starts in 1859 when some Japanese ports were opened for trading with foreign countries. Many Chinese traders settled in the parts of Yokohama that were designated as zones for foreign residents in Japan, and they built schools and factories in these areas. Even today the area between Chinatown and Motomachi are home to many consulates, ambassador’s residents, foreign churches and a famous foreigner’s cemetery.
Yokohama Chinatown’s prosperity was hampered by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the war in 1937, but it picked back up after the war and grew steadily until the big growth in the 1970s when diplomatic relations with China improved and again in 2004 when the Minatomirai Line gave the area a dedicated subway station. Today there are a few thousand Chinese living in the area. There’s much more to say about Chinese history in Japan and the history of Chinatown but I am saving that for a post for the coming week!
There are four main gates into the area and in the first few photos you can see one of them. Chinatown spills out beyond the gates but once you pass one you can be sure you are inside the Chukagai. The area is very popular with tourists, both Japanese and foreign and the streets are very lively, especially here in Yokohama which is even quieter than Tokyo.
The second batch of Sakura or Cherry blossom photos I took for the Special.T commercial campaign back in spring. This was on one of the very few truly fine days of the spring so I got out and took as many photos as I possible could. I saw one happy couple having their wedding photos taken in the famous park on top of the Yamate area near Yokohama’s Yamashita park. I hope they had a great marriage and a big party afterwards! Just looking at these photos make me long for next year’s cherry blossom season!
Better late than never – here are some photos from the gorgeous sakura season a couple of months ago, this time in Yokohama’s Minator Mirai area. I took these for the sakura tea campaign for the French Special.T brand, you can find more of my photos on their Pinterest page, along with several other photographers both Japanese and foreign. I think I have gotten hooked on getting photos of kids trying to catch or smell the flowers, I always manage to get one of those shots! Enjoy!