Poor, poor Yokohama. The city is forever in the shadow of larger and more famous Tokyo, which is barely 30 km to the north. Every time Yokohama makes an international name for itself — or is about to — cruel fate wipes everything away. Presently, though, the city appears to be on an upswing, and a visitor there can see Japan’s tallest building and largest Chinatown. There are also quirkier attractions such as a feline art gallery and the world’s only interactive ramen museum.
BOOM AND DOOM
Foreigners began trickling in after Matthew Perry’s visit in 1853, and poured in after the new Meiji government declared Yokohama an official foreign port in 1869. By the turn of the century, it was one of the busiest ports on earth, and its growth had included Japan’s first bakery (1860), first public toilets (1871), and first railroad (to Tokyo in 1872). It was a national showplace.
However, that all came to an end with the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which in Yokohama alone killed 20,000 people and destroyed 60,000 buildings.
But Yokohama didn’t give up. Over the next twenty years it rebuilt itself as a major industrial zone.
However, that all came to an end in World War Two. Approximately half of the city was destroyed, much of it during a single air raid in 1945 that involved 700 B-29 bombers.1 But Yokohama didn’t give up. It again rebuilt itself on the strength of its port.
However, that all came to an end over the next several decades, with the rise of international air travel. Without a major airport of its own, Yokohama’s significance as a cargo-handling center steadily shrank, and its passenger traffic all but disappeared.
But Yokohama didn’t give up. In the 1990s it tried to make a name for itself by erecting the tallest building in all of Japan: the 69-floor Landmark Tower. It is nearly fifty percent taller than the previous record-holder (Tokyo’s 48-floor Metropolitan Government Building) and a lot prettier too.
However, no one outside of Japan noticed, and a number of people inside Japan seem unaware even now. Perhaps this is because Yokohama made its move at the same time that Malaysia was constructing the Petronas Towers, purportedly the tallest buildings on earth.
But Yokohama didn’t give up. When Japan and Korea were named as co-hosts of soccer’s 2002 World Cup, Yokohama made a successful bid to host the final game. The eyes of the entire world are going to be on this neglected city at last.
However, that too may come to an end before it even starts. Last month the Asian delegates to FIFA (soccer’s governing body) walked out of a meeting en masse in order to protest what they see as the unfairly small number of playoff berths set aside for Asian teams, as opposed to the larger numbers for European and South American teams. A FIFA spokesman rather tactlessly condemned the protest as “ungrateful” on the grounds that FIFA had paid the delegates’ hotel bills. If no compromise is reached, the 2002 World Cup could move to London.
But Yokohama hasn’t given up. When I paid a visit last week, I found the main roads and railroad stations cheerfully adorned with World Cup banners. Yokohama ganbatte!
THE RAMEN MUSEUM
I began my visit at Shin-Yokohama station, which is served by the shinkansen (bullet train) as well as the JR Yokohama Line and a municipal subway. Gourmand that I am, my first objective was the Shin-Yokohama Raumen (sic) Museum. It is the only museum on earth devoted to the history and varieties of ramen noodles.
To get there, take the large pedestrian bridge leading out of the bus plaza at the north exit of the station. At the bottom of the steps, proceed straight ahead on a street called Renga-dori and make the first right after Starbucks. Then, make the first left, and you’ll be standing in front of the ramen museum half a block later. If you stay on Renga-dori for another three blocks, you’ll come within sight of the soccer stadium. It can be reached via a grassy park along the banks of a small river. Even if there is no game on, you may want to visit Sports Community Plaza, a public swimming facility beneath the stadium. It includes a water slide and charges 500 yen admission.
The Raumen Museum might have been better named the Ramen Theme Park. Its main attraction is a re-creation of an urban residential area from the year Showa 33 (1959). It is four stories high with a painted sky arching over a collection of real building facades. There is laundry hanging from the windows, crooked TV aerials on the roofs, and nostalgic billboards advertising movies and products of the day. There is also a cast of about twenty actors in period costume, from the local cop to the neighborhood granny, who circulate among the visitors to add further verisimilitude to the time-traveling experience. One of them was 73-year-old “Ryutaro Nemoto,” the proprietor of a candy store. Beneath his gray-dyed hair and wrinkle makeup, I’d guess that he was really about 20. He tried to strike up a conversation with me as I browsed in his shop, but my Japanese wasn’t good enough to get very far. Too bad. It could have been fun.
Most of the buildings house actual ramen shops, each specializing in the ramen of a particular region of Japan. An available English pamphlet explains the distinctions among them. There are seven permanent shops, plus an eighth that changes periodically to showcase the products of real-world ramen joints that the museum management has discovered and approved of. There is also a back alley to explore, which includes an operating shot bar.
The top floor is the one that most closely resembles a conventional museum. It has a display of over 100 ramen bowls of various designs, and hundreds of instant ramen packages from around the world. Many of the flavors represented, such as “Oriental” or “Texas Beef,” are not well-known in Japan. There is also an exhibit about notable ramen shops of the past, complete with several generations of family photos.
The most entertaining aspect of this floor is the continuous videos of old TV commercials. I watched about a dozen of them from the early 1960’s, when mass-produced food was still novel enough that an advertiser could proudly show scratchy black-and-white footage of chicken parts tumbling down an assembly line to the accompaniment of xylophone music. In another ad, construction workers took a break from building a modern highway overpass from concrete beams. As they slurped instant ramen and nodded seriously at one another, a bass-voiced narrator declared, “New men for a new age are eating new food.” A third showed the changing times more sharply when an old man in a kimono was served a bowl of ramen by a daughter in a beehive hairdo.
Admission to the museum is 300 yen, and it is open daily from 11:00 to 11:00. The last admission is an hour before closing time.
GAIJIN GRAVEYARD; CAT HEAVEN
My next stop was the Yamate neighborhood (alias Yokohama Bluff) which can be reached by walking uphill from Ishikawa-cho station on the JR Yokohama Line. This has been a major foreign enclave since the days of the black ships. A number of 19th century foreign diplomats had their residences here because the Japanese government of that time wasn’t comfortable having them any closer to the capital. Today, the neighborhood is still full of Western architecture, including a number of Christian churches.
Most of the residents are Japanese these days, but some of the original foreigners never left. The oldest graves in Yokohama Bluff’s International Cemetery contain members of Perry’s crew. This cemetery has been billed as a tourist attraction in the past, but it is currently off-limits to anyone who isn’t there to visit a specific grave. Fortunately, the graveyard occupies a long and relatively narrow strip of land, and it is possible to read many of the inscriptions over the low fence without actually going in. Now, in the heat of summer, it serves as an unofficial sanctuary for dozens of cats who sunbathe on the monuments.
There’s a speaker with a button located in the corner of a bulletin board at one of the entrances. It looks like it might provide some recorded narration, but in fact it is an intercom to the caretaker’s office. Learn from my embarrassment and leave the poor guy alone.
Incidentally, there’s a beer garden on the lawn of a restaurant directly across from the cemetery’s uphill entrance. It has a view of the Yokohama skyline to the north and Mt. Fuji to the west. It’s a nice place to be at sunset.
A number of the houses in this neighborhood have been converted into museums. The Yamate Museum is devoted to the history of the neighborhood itself, and Toys Club is a three-house collection of antique toys. There’s also the brand-new Yokohama Yamate Tennis Museum on the grounds of a club that claims to be the “Birthplace of Tennis in Japan.” It was founded by British expatriates in 1878, but only much later were Japanese accepted as members. It must have been a slow birth.
The most charming museum in Yamate, as far as I’m concerned, is Yokohama Neko no Bijutsukan, officially translated as the “Art Museum of Cats.” The name says it all. This small but impressive gallery houses Saori Tsuboyama’s eclectic collection of feline-themed art. It ranges from Edo-era prints to abstract metal sculpture. There’s even a sketch of “What’s Michael?” by the manga artist Makoto Kobayashi, who autographed it to Tsuboyama-san. I was given a detailed tour by her nine-year old granddaughter Mariko, a very polite little girl who speaks excellent English. She explained that her grandmother purchased one of the works — a panoramic harbor scene in ink — only after the artist agreed to add a cat to one corner of the picture.
Downhill from the Bluff and across the Nakamura River you will find Chuka-gai, or Chinatown. Yokohama has the largest such neighborhood in Japan, and I spent a good portion of my evening searching for a nice dim sum restaurant. There were plenty of them, but I think I’d have had better luck at lunchtime. Something that seems to be constantly available throughout Chinatown is chuka-gashi, or little Chinese cakes. Though their colors and shapes are lovely to behold, chuka-gashi tend to be dry and crumbly and are not especially sweet by Western standards. The rare exceptions are the ones stuffed with candied fruit or nuts.
Chinatown is a rectangle, several blocks on a side. In the southwestern corner I happened upon something that looked like a temple. As is typical, there appeared to be someone in a booth collecting admission. When I approached to pay, the old lady in the booth addressed me in English and said that I was free to look around as much as I liked, but that the interior of the temple was a sacred space. I couldn’t set foot in it unless I burned incense there — and she just happened to be selling incense sticks at 500 yen a bundle.
Since the front wall of the building was nearly nonexistent and I could see as much as I liked without going inside, I declined. The basic design was very much like a Japanese temple except that every available surface had been rendered incredibly ornate with painted or sculpted designs. Even the columns supporting the roof were swarming with small statues of people, animals, and flowers. There were a number of iron pots in which you could burn incense, and I noticed that the people doing so bowed in front of the pots before putting their incense inside. Perhaps it was because I still hadn’t eaten at this point, but I swear that the incense smelled exactly like sweet and spicy tomato sauce. My stomach began to growl irreverently, and I thought it best to leave.
On my way out, I asked to lady in the booth to tell me the name of the temple. It’s called Yokohama Kanteibyou, but she sternly corrected that it was not a temple but a shrine. It was dedicated to the memory of the Emperor Quong, who was born 1,838 years ago. Soon — on August 5th — it would be 1,839 years, and a dance festival was being prepared to celebrate his birthday. Not only was Emperor Quong (my own romanization) a notable warrior, but he introduced a system of accounting to China, and this has made him a favorite of businessmen ever since. She said that the recent economic slump in Japan has led to an increase in shrine attendance.
LANDMARK TOWER … AND MORE
It is a tribute to Yokohamans’ optimism that even in this post-Bubble age they undertook to build the gigantic Landmark Tower, which is at least twice as big as anything else in town. Sakuragi-cho is the nearest train station. There’s a five-story shopping mall built around an atrium at the base of the tower. Architecturally, this mall is much like those in North America or Australia except for one nifty feature — curving escalators. A trip to the 69th-floor observation lounge in the world’s fastest elevator (45 kph going straight up) costs 1000 yen. You can see the Boso and Miura peninsulas, Tokyo Tower, and Mt. Fuji. To get your money’s worth, go just before sunset and watch the city lights come on.
I, however, went there well after dark. The most interesting part of my view was Cosmo World, a small amusement park at the foot of the tower. Its main attraction is the Cosmo Clock, which was the largest Ferris wheel on earth when it was constructed ten years ago. Though it no longer holds the title, it is impressive enough. Based on a visual comparison with nearby buildings, it appears to be a good twenty stories tall.
Alas, I was only in Yokohama for a day, so I didn’t have time to ride it this time. It is one of many things I will have to save for my next visit, such as the Wild Blue Yokohama water park or the nightlife of Noge-cho (also widely but incorrectly known as Sakuragi-cho). In addition, it is possible to go for a dinner cruise in the harbor, and there are two permanently moored ships that are open for tours: the Nippon-maru (a sailing ship) and the Hikawa-maru (a steamship). Yokohama’s Sankeien is said to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. New shopping and dining areas are being added to the waterfront, and there are numerous museums that I missed.
Yokohama probably never will be as famous as Tokyo, but it is not for lack of trying.
Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.