As you descend the stairs from the platform at JR Sakuragicho station, you notice two things. The music playing behind you to indicate that the train doors are closing is "I've been working the railroad" and on the walls are historical photos of the station over the past 143 years. For Sakuragicho is the original Yokohama station and one of the oldest train stations in Japan. As early as 1872, passengers arriving in Japan by ship would board the train for Tokyo from here. So it is only fitting that your exploration of Yokohama's history as a port city should begin here.
Let's begin by getting some perspective--a bird's eye view. From Sakuragicho station, make your way to nearby Landmark Tower to visit the 69th floor observation deck known as Sky Garden. The express elevator that takes you there hits a top speed of 65 kph. on the way. Enjoy 360-degree views to get a perspective on both the port and the urban sprawl. Try to arrive by the opening time of 10 am. This way you can avoid crowds and hopefully get a clear view of Mt Fuji, which often hides during the middle of the day. By starting at this time of day you'll have enough time to fully explore the places described in this article.
Built in 1993, the 296-meter Landmark Tower enjoyed 20 years as the tallest building in Japan. It has now been usurped by Osaka's Abeno Harukas as well as by the Tokyo Skytree, if that can be regarded as a building. Descending from Sky Garden, walk through Landmark Plaza and drop by Dockyard Garden, an old dry dock preserved from this area's shipyard days. Then make your way to Nippon Maru, the merchant marine training ship now permanently moored and preserved as a museum. Buy the combination ticket to visit the nearby Yokohama Port Museum as well.
The ship offers fascinating insights into the lives of sailors. Retired seamen, many of whom speak excellent English, act as docents throughout the ship to answer questions and tell stories of life at sea. At the Yokohama Port Museum, you'll learn how Yokohama came to be Japan's premier port city, details on the port's development and re-development after the tragedy of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, as well as information on Japan's early trading days and the kinds of goods to transit the port. There's even a simulator, if you'd like a chance to dock a ship yourself!
Next, walk along the Kishamichi Promenade, formerly the railway line to bring freight in from the docks. The original rails have been preserved in the walkway surface and cherry trees planted to make this a pleasant stroll even on a winter day. At the end of the spit-like promenade, turn left and go up the staircase toward World Porters, a large shopping complex. Skirt the complex counterclockwise and take the "circle walk" to the JICA Yokohama International Center, home of the Japan Overseas Migration Museum. This little museum honors the 760,000 Japanese who emigrated overseas during the Meiji Period, most of the resettling in North or South America and is an excellent reminder that Yokohama, as a port, transited not only goods but also people.
Just a short walk away is the Red Brick Warehouse, two former bonded warehouses built in the early 20th century, now renovated into boutique shopping and restaurant facilities. It's a perfect place for a lunch stop, while admiring the amazing architecture of the warehouses and considering the intricacies of the import-export business.
Cross the bridge south of the warehouses and stroll the Yamashita Rinkosen Promenade, another former freight train line turned into a pedestrian paradise. This one runs high above street level, providing fascinating harbor and city views, including the green copper dome of the Yokohama Customs House, popularly known as the "Queen's Tower", and the almost spaceship-like appearance of Osanbashi Pier, where most cruise ships entering Yokohama dock. When Osanbashi was originally built in 1894, it was known as the English Pier and was the center of English trade in and out of Japan. Descend the stairs for Osanbashi and head inland to visit the Yokohama Silk Museum, built on the site once occupied by the Japanese headquarters of Jardine Matheson & Co., one of the earliest English trading houses. Here you can learn about the commodity that was one of Japan's major exports in its early trading days. Don't forget to visit the upper level, with its display of Japanese silk garments through the ages.
The "port opening plaza" across from the Silk Museum is currently undergoing renovations, but you cannot help but notice two distinctive historical buildings flanking it. One is a white Christian church, the Yokohama Kaigan Church. Although the current church building was built in 1933 to replace the church destroyed by the 1923 earthquake, the church itself was established in 1872, while Christianity itself was still outlawed in Japan. The other building, on the north side of the plaza, is the Yokohama Archives, housed in the former British consulate building. The archives are open to the public, but the displays are mostly in Japanese and may be of interest only to the most die-hard history buffs. Walk through the grounds of the archives as a shortcut, and a chance to appreciate the site where the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa was signed. This is the heart of the early foreign trading settlement.
Across Nihon Odori, north of the archives, is the Art Deco-style Kanagawa Prefectural Government Building, built in 1928. The five-story central tower is known as the "King's Tower." The next block inland is dominated by the Yokohama District Court House, originally built in 1930 and renovated in 2001, its distinctive facade beautifully preserved. Walk around the court house clockwise until you can see across the street the distinctive red brick and white trim of the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall, built in 1917 in a style reminiscent of Tokyo Station. Its clock tower is known as "Jack." The Hall was badly damaged in the 1923 earthquake but was quickly restored with reinforced construction. It's possible to wander freely inside. Regrettably ascending the cast iron spiral staircase of the "Jack" tower is not usually permitted.
Head north-northwest for three blocks to the former Yokohama Bank Assembly Hall, a 1936 Art Deco building. Turn right and at the end of the street you will see the headquarters of NYK, Japan's premier shipping company. The ground floor is now the NYK Maritime Museum, with displays on the history of the company, its proud days of luxury passenger travel, and its modern shipping practices. Most of the displays and videos have English available, although English is curiously absent from the displays covering the years of the Pacific War.
Editor's note: Vicki will continue her exploration of Yokohama next month.© Japan Today