Yokohama in Autumn - Part 1

Last Monday was a bank holiday, so Logan and I headed to Yokohama to explore an area of Kanto we've not seen before. Yokohama is a port city about half an hour south of Tokyo, and has a reputation as an international hub. Historically, the port became Japan's major international trading port after the long period of isolationism. As such, it's now one of the only places in Japan where you can easily find American and European architecture, as well as restaurants and even traditions, for example, it hosts an annual Oktoberfest (while we were there!).

We arrived on Friday night and found our hotel, which was pleasantly close to the heart of things in Yokohama. We passed what remained of that first evening in the cosy surroundings of an underground English Pub, where we met a number of very friendly Japanese people, all of whom were very pleased and impressed to hear us speak a few words of Japanese.

Saturday morning was drizzly and grey, but not especially cold, and anyway the weather couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for our little mini-holiday. We bought a pair of umbrellas in the local konbini (convenience store, like a Spar) and made our way to the harbour-front. It really did rain a lot that first day! Instead of using a map or researching tourist highlights in advance, we simply took a right turn at the harbour and found a delightful park absolutely abounding with roses in every colour of the rainbow. Even the pouring rain couldn't detract from their gorgeousness. The park (Yamashita Park) was laid out in more of a European style than most Japanese parks, and there were little statues and plaques hidden all around it. I discovered that Yokohama is twinned with San Diego, and the park proudly displays 4 Mission Bells gifted to the city by San Diego 25 years ago. There was also a monument to friendship between Girl Scouts, which of course I took a picture with. It was a bronze statue of two girls making the Guiding salute, and another smaller girl off to one side.

The final statue of note in that park was the statue of the girl with the red shoes, which is a famous children's story set in Yokohama. It's about a shoemaker who makes a pair of beautiful red shoes for a very spoiled, wealthy girl who then sends them back. While the shoes sit in the window of the shop, a little orphan girl comes to see them every day and wishes she could have such a beautiful pair of shoes. Eventually, it comes to the time when the little girl is to leave Yokohama on a big boat to America in order to try to find adoptive parents, and the shoemaker gives her the shoes as a present. There is a theme of internationalism throughout the story which is particularly appealing just now, and I think the little girl and the shoemaker felt that the shoes would bring her luck and help her to make new friends in foreign places.
The statue itself is a little underwhelming, and, being made of bronze, doesn't appear to be wearing red shoes, but I thought it was a nice story and apparently there's a song about it too.

We meandered through the park for quite some time, before heading along a street of European buildings, few of which survived the 1921 Great Kanto Earthquake, making the last ones all the more special. Although it was a surprise to see this type of architecture in Japan, I think the setting of a large city made it less striking. In rural Ibaraki, with its beautiful black-tiled Japanese farmhouses, a red brick European building would stand out incredibly, but I felt that the effect was lessened considerably by the surrounding skyscrapers.

We had a light lunch in a "French" cafe, and watched happily as the sun came out. In the afternoon, we went to the Sankeien Gardens on the outskirts of Yokohama. These gardens are in a much more traditional Japanese style than Yamashita Park in the morning, and are intriguingly filled with historic houses, outbuildings and pagodas poached from other places in Japan! Each building or monument had a plaque explaining its significance and where it was from. We also experienced our first Japanese storyteller, although unfortunately we don't yet speak enough Japanese to appreciate it fully. It was fun for a while though to sit bare-foot on the wooden floor of a large old temple building listening to and watching the animated storytelling of an old Japanese lady. In an fun little twist, the stories all originated from Europe, and while we were sat there, she told stories from England, Wales and Ireland. It was funny to hear the Japanese rendering of the word "leprechaun"!

On our return from the park, the bus dropped us off on the edge of Yokohama's Chinatown, the largest one in Japan. We weaved our way into it, taking lots of photos of the gaudy red and gold shopfronts and long lines of people queuing for steamed buns. I had wondered whether a Chinatown might not feel as different to me in a country where I already cannot read much of the language, where the food is unfamiliar, and where it is incredibly rare to see other Westerners, but it managed to feel very different indeed. Although Japan and China share a kanji (picture-based) alphabet, and have some overlapping food customs, it was quite obvious even from the small area of Chinatown that it's not just in the UK that I can recognise the distinct feel of such a place. Buffet restaurants, steamed bun vendors, golden dragons, ornately carved wooden panelling and oddly at-home designer knock-offs filled every building. It was crowded and exciting, especially after an afternoon in such a peaceful park. The air smelled deliciously of pork and ginger. We were beckoned into a buffet restaurant, where we ate our fill of char shiu, dumplings and fried rice and then headed back to the hotel.

Having eaten early, we couldn't quite decide how to spend our Saturday evening, and so set out vaguely looking for a nice spot for a quiet drink. Once we were on our way however, the warm still evening and clear moonlit skies were too good to miss, and we spent a wonderful evening walking around the whole of the Yokohama. It was eerily deserted in places, most likely due to the Japanese custom of having agreed days and times for almost every activity, including socialising, which meant that presumably everyone was spending Saturday in with their visiting family, in preparation for Sunday night, the eve of the bank holiday, which had a completely different atmosphere altogether.
It was wonderful to walk around Yokohama in the stillness though. We crossed the bridge over to a small island with Yokohama's Ferris Wheel and rollercoasters, original red brick warehouses and grand modern hotel and shopping complexes. I'm very glad we saw it this way, before spending the whole of Sunday enjoying it by daylight.

But more on that in another post.


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  2. We spent a morning in Yokohama last month. We went to the cup noodle museum which was absolutely amazing. The Landmark tower was pretty cool as well. Would have loved to see more of the city but alas we only had a few hours spare.


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