I am a little way outside of Tokyo to go Yokohama sightseeing. The area was once a quaint fishing town, where nothing much really happened. After the American people came with their ships, Yokohama opened Japan up to the world of foreign trade, and these days, Yokohama has become one of the major ports for trade in Japan.
My first stop is the Site where the Japan-America Treaty of Amity and Friendship was concluded. The treaty (also known as The Treaty of Kanagawa) was signed in 1854 on this very piece of ground, and effectively changed the way Japan dealt with people from other countries. The signing also gave birth to the flourishing city of Yokohama. A memorial made up of mostly mirrors is here now, and uneven ground at the centre of this historic spot has become the ideal place for rainwater to collect.
With so much history in the area, Yokohama features many foreign buildings and places and is heavily influenced by various different Cultures. It is one such culture that brings me here today, the Chinese. Today is of course Chinese New Year, so I thought the ideal place to celebrate would be in a city with its very own Chinatown.
Wig Trouble in Little Chinatown
Marking the entrance to Chinatown hangs a brightly coloured gate. The first thing I notice is that beyond the gate, the rows of Chinese restaurants and shops no longer resemble Japan. Tucked between two such restaurants sits a branch of Starbucks Coffee, instantly shattering the illusion that I might actually be in China. I make my way through the crowds and arrive at a temple.
Yokohama Kanteibyo is a Taoist temple, dedicated to Chinese general Guan Yu. He is recognised today as the god of war and victory. Built-in 1871 by Chinese migrants, the temple has since been destroyed four times but always rebuilt. A common theme in Japan regarding temples. The temple these days symbolises good luck and good fortune in business and is packed full of Chinese residents and tourists here to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Inside the temple, people are queueing up to pay ¥1000 for a piece of scented wood. The incense here is lit, then placed into a pot. It is said that burning the first incense of the New Year is especially important in Chinese Culture and that those that take part in this ritual, are said to have a prosperous year ahead.
After the incense, people take their fortune in a way similar to that of Japanese temples and shrines. I find common themes between the two countries, especially the way that they each celebrate their own New Year. Visiting a temple or shrine, the first prayer or burning of incense, eating traditional food. The only thing that really stands out as different today, is the impending Lion Dance.
I leave Yokohama Kanteibyo and head out into the lantern-lined streets. Twenty-one million visitors come to Yokohama Chinatown each year, and it is the largest such town in Japan; with over six hundred shops and restaurants compacted into this small area. It feels like the twenty-one million visitors have all chosen to come here today, as both sides of the streets are packed full of people. My confinement makes it difficult for me to move.
I find a decent spot in the crowd and wait. Even though the Lion Dance will parade through here shortly, for whatever reason, the road is still open for vehicles. A traditional Chinese vehicle displaying the name ‘Family Mart’ sails through the crowd, getting dangerously close to running someone over. Every time a vehicle cruises through, a man with a megaphone shouts for everyone to step back. It is carnage. A problem with the head of the lion costume causes further delays, and the Lion Dance ends up running very late. The event finally starts one hour after the scheduled time.
Firecrackers louder than the Big Bang consume the silence. The shock of noise startles me, and children around me cry in fear. Eventually, a man dressed as a lion appears, and the crowd roars. Drums start, and the lion begins to dance. I watch the lion dancing for about four seconds before it disappears into a Chinese restaurant; presumably continuing to dance around inside.
After the lion reemerges from the restaurant, his head is removed, and the drums stop. This is what I came all this way to see, effectively nothing. I stick around to see if anything else is about to happen, but the crowd has all but dispersed. The firecrackers sound again, the air filled with a gloomy white smoke before the lion begins to dance into the next Chinese restaurant. I get bored, so decide to leave Chinatown for good, and find something a little more interesting.
A walk around for about an hour, until I discover something noteworthy. In 1871, shortly after The Treaty of Kanagawa was signed, a street known as Nihon-Ō-dōri was built here. It remains historic today as the first modern street to ever be built in Japan and was originally built as a divide between the settlement of overseas migrants, and the Japanese people.
The signboard says, “This street presents the best opportunity to enjoy glimpses of Yokohama’s past.” I wander the full thirty-six metres of the concrete street, all the while trying to enjoy glimpses of the past. Typically, my dispassion is once again impaired by the view of a giant Ferris wheel that looms in the sky above.
The Adventures of Tin Toys
After staring at a Ferris wheel for perhaps too long, I notice a point of interest sign, and spot one thing that genuinely excites me; the Tin Toy Museum. This will be my next destination.
I start by walking through the Yamate area. This place is made up of interlocking stone pathways, that bend and crawls at various steep degrees. The area reminds me of my hometown; steep hills and Western-style houses. Considering that this area (known to the locals as simply ‘The Bluff’) houses many tourists, I am surprised to find that the maps in these hills are mostly in Japanese. Needless to say, I get lost and stumble into a random Spanish style house.
There is no charge to enter the house, but I do have to remove my shoes. For no reason that I can see, there is a woman playing the flute, accompanying another woman on piano. I recognise the melody but can’t seem to give it a name. I wander around, having the opportunity to view a real Spanish kitchen, complete with old cutlery. I discover that the house was built by an American, but designed by a British architect; so where the Spanish theme comes from is once again beyond me. The Bluff features many houses of this style, where you can freely wander around and take a look at what the architecture is like in other countries. From the balcony window, I can see what is known as ‘British House’ in the distance.
I head into the dining room, expecting to see tables and chairs, but instead, I find some strange artwork that clearly doesn’t belong here.
I leave the house and continue my search for the Tin Toy Museum. I wander through a cemetery for British soldiers, and out the other side. I find the oldest wooden Christian church in Japan, but it is of very little interest to me. I walk for about an hour through maze-like streets, before finally finding a map in English. The Tin Toy Museum is on the opposite side of The Bluff, close to the house I was at before. I walk back up steep hills, and through twisting alleyways. After a further half an hour, I arrive at the museum, half expecting it to be closed today.
At the entrance, I pay ¥200 and race inside.
Inside the Tin Toy Museum, The Beatles album ‘Help!’ is playing from the speakers; which is a good thing. The exhibition here features over three thousand miniature toys that were made in Japan from 1890 to 1960. The toys here (which are mostly cars, rockets, and robots) are the personal collection of Teruhisa Kitahara, a man with a manic affection for all things toy.
“Clown and circus toys are very comical, and will represent the movement of the circus. They are looking acrobatic popular,” says a sign next to some scary clowns. Within the museum is a second exhibit, known as the ‘Mini-Mini Museum’. Included in the ticket price, and about the size of a small shoe box, the Mini-Mini Museum seems like a pointless distraction and features even smaller toys than I thought were possible to make.
Back at the main exhibition, I find that JAXA astronaut Naoko Yamazaki has visited here too, and she appears to have forgotten a signed postcard of herself; left amongst Atomic Rockets and Space Ship X-7’s. I feel tempted to buy a remote control alligator for the price of a months rent, but I instead opt for a wind-up robot for ¥1242; quite expensive, but full of nostalgia, and I like robots.
I leave the museum and the Yamate area, and head for Yamashita Park. The park is on the waterfront, which is sadly cast in shadow by Hikawa Maru, an ocean liner that blocks the sunshine and is needlessly massive. These days it serves as another museum and eclipses the park with inconsideration. The reason I came to this park, however, was because I saw a sign for another point of interest that intrigued me, the Statue of Guardian God of Water.
It is no secret that I enjoy irony, so I find it incredibly amusing that the statue here stands within a construction site, inside a small pond full of bricks, and is completely absent of any water whatsoever. I can’t imagine the statue is best pleased with its surroundings.
Lady in Red Shoes
My final stop in Yokohama is also within Yamashita Park, Statue of Little Girl with Red Shoes On. I don’t really know what it was I was expecting to see here, but the description on the sign was pretty accurate. The girl is here to represent a children’s song from 1922. The song was written by Ujō Noguchi, and is called, ‘Akai Kutsu’, translating to mean, ‘Red Shoes’.
A young girl with red shoes was taken away by a foreigner.
She rode on a ship from Yokohama pier, taken away by a foreigner.
I imagine right now she has become blue-eyed, living in that foreigner’s land.
Every time I see red shoes, I think of her.
And every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.
I am not too sure what the song is about, and the only explanation offered by the sign here is that Yokohama City wants this statue to become a cherished landmark for its countless visitors. Sadly, the visitors appear to just walk along, not giving the statue a second glance.
I decide that there is little else to do in Yokohama; despite having had a nice day of sightseeing, it is time to head back to the reality of life. I buy some takeaway food for the train, taken away by a foreigner; and head back to Tokyo.