Yokohama is the original treaty port in Japan; it was here, in 1854 that the Treaty of Amity was signed between Commodore Perry (of the United States) and Japan, which forced open Japanese ports to European trade. In fact, the very tree under which the treaty was signed still stands, near the exact spot where the historic event took place (at the former British Consulate). Yokohama opened 5 years later, in 1859, to foreign trade – the very first port in Japan to do so.
Of the three major treaty ports of Japan – Nagasaki, Kobe and Yokohama – the latter has maintained its foremost position, by virtue of it being the port of Tokyo. It is also the city that has best integrated its heritage as a port city into its contemporary architecture and urban design.
The former port area is known today as Minato Mirai 21 港未来 – literally “Future Port.” Revitalised and restored in the 1980s, it continues to be Yokohama’s central business district and is a case study in successful urban rejuvenation.
Elsewhere, Yokohama has also preserved a surprising number of its historic buildings. Many of these, unfortunately don’t date from the Treaty Port era (1854 – 1899) but from the Meiji-Taisho-Showa Eras (1900s – 1930s).
But there is a sufficient number of these buildings to give you a sense of what it used to look like. A large concentration of these sit along Bashamichi 馬車道 – literally “Horse Carriage Road” – so-called because this was the main commercial thoroughfare down which Europeans would go in their horse carriages in the late 1800s.
Near the Port area is also to be found Yokohama’s three most famous heritage buildings – known as the three towers: the “Jack Tower” or Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall (a Meiji-era confection), the “Queen Tower” or Yokohama Customs House and the “King Tower” or Kanagawa Prefectural Office (the latter two being early Taisho-era buildings).
The other major cluster of heritage buildings sits in the Yamate 山手 District, formerly known as “The Bluff.” Like in Oura in Nagasaki and Kitano in Kobe, Yamate was the former foreign consulate and European residential area, built into the side of the city’s rolling hills.
In this area, there are more than a dozen historic residences and places of worship preserved today in a scattering of lovely parks on the hill. One significant historic site that dates from the Treaty Port era sits here – this is the Foreign Cemetery, a pleasant, if a bit melancholy collection of residents who passed on and were buried here. It has been reverently preserved and maintained.
Like the other two treaty ports, Yokohama also has a Chinatown, and though it does not have a strong a historic pedigree as its sister in Nagasaki, it is the largest Chinatown in Asia, outside of China, of course. It hosts a Mazu Temple as well as a Guan Gong Temple (called a Kanteibyo 関帝廟 in Japanese).
There was once also an Indian community living and working here, and their presence is memorialised by a very unique drinking fountain in the water-fronting Yamashita Park – the Yokohama Indian Union Drinking Fountain, presented to the city in 1923 in honour of members of the Indian Community that perished in the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Unlike Kobe and Nagasaki, however, Yokohama’s Bund has not survived. All that remains today is the fabulous Hotel New Grand – the grande dame of the city’s hospitality scene – where General MacArthur spent his first night after Japan surrendered during the Second World War.
Right in front of the Hotel at Yamashita Park is docked a majestic and fabulous relic from the era of long-distance luxury travel, however. This is the M.S. Hikawa Maru 氷川丸 – formerly a cruise ship of the NYK (Nippon Yusen Kaisha日本郵船株式会社) Lines, which has been meticulously restored to its former glory and functions as a floating museum. Exploring the ship, one gets a sense of the life led by our grand tourists in those heady days of travel.