Yokohama - Japan's most cosmopolitan city

china town in Yokohama

Find out why Julian Ryall thinks Yokohama is Japan's most cosmopolitan cities.

In 1849, Yokohama was a sleepy village of around 100 homes whose inhabitants made a living as fishermen supplying the city that was growing into Tokyo along the coast. Today, it is home to more than 3.6 million people and is arguably the most international and culturally diverse metropolis in Japan.

Initially, United States Navy Commodore Matthew Perry stood off the beach at Uraga, a few miles to the south, and requested that Japan open up to international trade. It was not until four years later that international access was transferred to Yokohama and the hamlet began its evolution.

Yokohama has the skyscrapers and elevated highways that are such a feature of modern Japanese cities, but the centre of this metropolis has shifted, enabling the old heart of the city to be largely preserved.

While the district around Yokohama Station is given over entirely to shops and offices and the Minato Mirai district has been reclaimed and developed in the last decade, the old port has been preserved and protected. 

Not that Yokohama escaped the last century-and-a-half entirely unscathed, the most serious damage being wrought on the city by Mother Nature. 

On September 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, the 7.9 magnitude quake triggering fires and a powerful tsunami. With so many buildings in the old waterfront district destroyed, it was decided that the debris be used to construct an open area on the seafront known as Yamashita Park. 

A favourite today among young couples, the waves lap the stonework and buskers perform their tricks amid fountains and a rose garden. Moored off the front lies the Hikawa Maru, a luxury passenger liner launched in 1929 to sail between Japan and the west coast of the United States.

In its heyday, the liner carried royalty and stars of the silver screen - including Charlie Chaplin - as its passengers. Today, it is protected as a time-capsule and visitors can see its state rooms, smoking lounges and stand on the bridge - before stopping by the stern promenade deck for ice-cold beers and traditional Japanese summer snacks accompanied by a live jazz band. 

Just inland from the park stands the recently renovated Marine Tower - at 106 metres listed as the tallest lighthouse in the world - and a block further inland the seething Chinatown district. 

The largest Chinatown in Asia, with well over 200 restaurants and stores, the community grew quickly after Yokohama opened to foreigners thanks to shipping links with Shanghai and Hong Kong. 

Catering far more to its local residents and less to the tourists, the Isezaki-cho Korean district is the legacy of they city's long association with another of its Asian neighbours.

But the oldest reminder of the roots of Yokohama's foreign community - when it was a gated foreign settlement in the Kannai district, where the baseball stadium stands today - has been preserved in the bluff district to the south of the city.

Overlooking the Nakamura River and the upmarket Motomachi shopping street, the hill rises steeply to the area where embassies, legations and the homes of wealthy businessmen were constructed, taking advantage of the cooler summer breezes and overlooking all that went on in the harbour. 

A number of those buildings have survived to this day, including Berrick Hall, the Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral and the home of an Italian diplomat, preserved as important national cultural artifacts.

Narrow lanes wend back down into the city, past the foreigners' cemetery and the 4,200 tombs of visitors and people who chose to make Yokohama their home, once again underlining the cosmopolitan nature of this city.