Walking Through Yokohama Chinatown
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).