I first set foot in Yokohama’s Chinatown a little more than 20 years ago, on a rainy evening in May 1997, on what happened to be my first real night out in Japan. I had arrived in the country less than a week previously and an old school friend was living in Yokohama. He was also my training partner from a London martial arts club, where we had become inspired to travel to Japan to further our training. His father was visiting and was a fan of Chinese food, so we set out for the district the Japanese call Chukagai.
Stepping into the rain-soaked, densely-packed streets, resplendent with a forest of neon signs emblazoned in Chinese, I couldn’t help thinking of Blade Runner. Although I knew Ridley Scott was actually influenced by Osaka for the cityscapes of his 1982 classic, I was still half expecting to see Harrison Ford’s Deckard ordering noodles at a street stall.
The other lasting memory from the evening was a heated exchange between my friend’s father, who fancied himself something of a Chinese cuisine connoisseur, and the restaurant staff over what constituted Peking duck. I was no expert, but I learned later that my companion’s dismissal of the dish he had been served as ‘just skin’ was indeed misplaced. More than a decade later, I was to be involved in my own heated exchange with a staff member in a Chukagai restaurant. I was confident my own complaint, a large hair in my meal, was at least well-founded. By then well used to Japan’s ‘customer is king’ approach, I took umbrage at the waitress’ casual dismissal of the problem. It was a reminder of how Chukagai, while not so different from the rest of Yokohama, still stands apart.
The history of Chukagai is inextricably interwoven with that of Yokohama, the first place foreigners were permitted to live when Japan was forced to open its borders, after a century and a half of almost total isolation, by the arrival of US naval ships in 1854. Then little more than a sleepy fishing village, Yokohama flourished after the ships were permitted to land there through the Treaty of Kanagawa, which was signed following a classic case of gunboat diplomacy.
With the port opened to the world in 1859, numerous Chinese traders, many from Canton (now Guangzhou), made the city home. There were restrictions on where all foreigners could live and work, but the Chukagai area, just a few minutes from the now bustling port, thrived. By 1873, Chinese residents had built Kanteibyo, a temple to a god of wealth and business. Although the temple has been destroyed by earthquake and fire, the original statue of Guan Yu is said to have been preserved and Kanteibyo remains a major tourist attraction.
The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 that destroyed Kanteibyo laid waste to much of Yokohama and Tokyo, killing 100,000 and leading many Chukagai residents to return to China. A little more than a decade later, the Sino-Japanese War further damaged the prosperity of Chukagai, followed by Japan’s defeat in World War Two, which devastated much of the region. Post-war it began to flourish again and was recognised officially as Chukagai in 1955, with four large, ornamental gates marking its entrances.
The 2004 opening of the Minatomirai train line and the area’s own station, Motomachi-Chukagai, brought better access from Tokyo, boosting the district further. Today, Chukagai bustles with visitors, particularly at weekends, and has become a popular stop for the growing number of tours from China in recent years.
While the district houses more than 250 Chinese shops selling medicine, incense, lanterns, panda memorabilia and more, the main draw is always the multitude of eateries. In addition to restaurants and teahouses, Chukagai is also notable for its vibrant street food culture. Eating while walking is a serious faux pas in Japan, but the norm is suspended within the gates of Chukagai. Still, it exhibits signs of Japanese influence; spotlessly clean, it is less hectic than Chinatowns in other countries.
As the waterfront district has been modernised and redeveloped, Chukagai still provides one of the welcome links to Yokohama’s history. My last expedition there was to show around a Hong Kong Chinese friend visiting Japan, who was charmed by the district. Thankfully, the most heated thing that day was the Chinese tea we drank in a street cafe.
Gavin Blair is a journalist living in Tokyo