The second largest city in Japan after Tokyo, Yokohama is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture and played a pivotal role in Japan’s history. It was one of the first ports to be opened to trade with Western nations after the negotiation of the Harris Treaty with the U.S. in 1858. As such, Yokohama has a uniquely international flair, which can be seen reflected in its architecture, food, and elsewhere.
Yokohama is easily accessible from many parts of Japan. It’s just a short trip from Tokyo – only 25 minutes on the subway, using the JR East Tokaido Line, Yokosuka Line, or Keihin-Tohoku Line. It is only 90 minutes from Narita airport by train or car, and about 25 – 30 minutes from Haneda airport.
Prior to opening to trade with the West, Yokohama was a small fishing village with a population of about 600. The Port of Yokohama officially opened in 1859, launching the village to become a center for international exchange and introducing an influx of new people, commodities, and ideas. By the time the city government of Yokohama was founded in 1889, the population had expanded to over 120,000.
Throughout its history, Yokohama also experienced devastation that caused the city to be rebuilt time and again. In 1891 an earthquake struck that destroyed many of the brick and stone buildings built during the early Meiji period. Then, in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck causing further destruction, and in 1945, Allied bombing took a severe toll. As a result, the city features modern construction side by side with surviving historical sites.
One of the most well-known modern structures is the Landmark Tower, which is one of the tallest buildings in Japan and is designed to be earthquake-proof. Other notable landmarks include Yamashita Park, Osanbashi Pier, and Sankeien garden.
The multicultural city is also home to one of Japan’s largest Chinatowns, where visitors can try many authentic Chinese dishes. For foodies, Yokohama also has two great noodle-related attractions, the Cup Noodles Museum and the Ramen Museum.
I’ll never forget the summer I studied in Yokohama. My classes were located in the Pacifico Yokohama building, which sits by the edge of the water in the Minato Mirai area, and looks like an enormous shark fin. There’s a grassy park nearby, where you can smell the salty air and hear the blare of fog-horns.
I walked to class every day from my weekly rental apartment. It was about a forty minute walk, but I loved seeing the mix of old fashioned Western architecture side by side with modern structures. The Akarenga Soko, or Red Brick Warehouses, stand out clearly in my memory. They were constructed in the late Meiji period to store cargo, but have been renovated and repurposed to house shops, restaurants and performance spaces. Red brick is not a traditional Japanese building material, so it was unusual to see an old building like this in Japan.
Meanwhile, if I took a different route to class, I could encounter a much different environment. This route allowed me to whisk quickly along on moving pathways, like you find at airports, which made me feel like I was living in a futuristic film. I never knew what I would encounter on my walks. One day, I realized I must have accidentally walked through a film shoot, because I was suddenly surrounded by a mob of life-size dancing Pikachu.
My daily walk also took me past many landmarks and attractions that drew me back to Minato Mirai on the weekends, like Yokohama Cosmoworld Amusement Park. Its Ferris Wheel is one of the defining features of Yokohama’s skyline, and the compact amusement park also has thrill rides, children’s rides, and carnival games. The park is free to enter, and visitors can buy tickets for individual rides or games. Every day, the giant digital clock face on the Ferris Wheel reminded me to hurry to class as I passed by, but I knew I would come back later.
With its fascinating history, beautiful scenery, and fun attractions, Yokohama has something for everyone. It’s a wonderful place to spend the summer, or just a few days.
Get to Know Japan Series: Kanagawa is co-organized by Kanagawa Prefectural Government.
Talks+ Programs at Japan Society are generously sponsored by MUFG (Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group).