Spotlight: Chinatown (Yokohama)

I realize that the Chinese New Year officially began on February 10th but since I’m heading up to catch the final days of the Nagasaki Lantern Festival this weekend, I’m in the mood to drag out the celebration a bit. Nagasaki has a small, interesting Chinatown itself but my favorite Chinatown in Japan is, hands down, the Chinatown of Yokohama.

When Japan officially opened its doors to the West in the late 1850s, Yokohama was among the first of Japan’s port cities to welcome foreign traders. A small but bustling Chinatown was established in 1859, bounded on its four sides by a series of massive, ornate gates. Civic buildings and services were set up quickly to cater to the influx of immigrants; even when Yokohama relaxed its regulations on foreign segregation, Chinatown continued to grow and expanded several blocks into the surrounding city.

Lanterns hang in front of a Chinatown gate
Lanterns hang in front of a Chinatown gate

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck in 1923, much of the city was devastated. A majority of the neighborhood’s residents returned home to China rather than stay and rebuild.  A steady souring of regional relations and the advent of the Pacific War meant that the once vibrant Chinatown was not much more than a shadow of its former glory.

With the end of the war and a reestablishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1972, attention was again focused on Yokohama’s Chinatown and the neighborhood began to experience a renaissance. While only a small percentage of Chinatown’s residents today are actually Chinese, the atmosphere of old Chinatown persists, making it a tourist draw for domestic and foreign tourists alike.

Dumpling stands on a Chinatown street
Dumpling stands on a Chinatown street

One of the main reasons to go to Chinatown is for the food. Dumpling stands are a dime a dozen (just scope out which vendor has the longest line to find out whose cuisine is the, ahem, flavor of the month) and a number of restaurants offer sit-down family-style service. You can actually experience a variety of Chinese cuisines here, from Shanghai-style seafood to spicy Sichuan. During the week, most restaurants will offer affordable bowls of noodles but on the weekends, you can find course menus in effect that rival any Japanese kaiseki meal in both quality and price!

There’s plenty more to see and do in this city by the bay so leave some time in your itinerary to explore Japan’s second largest metropolitan area. You won’t be disappointed!

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