First port in Japan opened to the outside world
Believe it or not, as possibly you have not even heard of this city before, it is the most populous in Japan, and also its municipality the largest in inhabitants, (Tokyo remains the largest city by metropolitan area inhabitants). However if you take a map, it is even hard to know and see where Tokyo ends and where Yokohama begins. All is a continuous maze of streets entirely built up, with Yokohama all along Tokyo Bay. The main and principal port in the country, a massive commercial hub of the Greater Tokyo Area. Now when you think about the very short history of the city and in what it has transformed itself in barely 150 years, that’s fascinating to see such an unstoppable growth, to the point of being even scary in the rise of population and building.
It was only June the 2nd 1859 when the Port of Yokohama officially opened to the foreign world marking the end of the feudal Edo period when Japan held a strong policy of national seclusion, having little contact with the outside world. In a matter of few years since then it quickly became the centre and main base for the trade, a truly international city where each district was home to different nationals, among them especially, the British and the Chinese. The city nowadays boats the largest Chinatown outside of mainland China, which is one of its major sights and tourist attractions.
Should you consider this city as part of your Japan tour? Two facts here, but it does basically translates to time. If this is what you have, then of course yes! Do not even hesitate. But secondly, treat this city as if it would be another district of Tokyo. You can easily consider it when preparing your plans for Tokyo because in half a day you could enjoy most of its sights. The port area and the Chinatown are the highlights, so yes, it’s a great idea to come because it’s a worthy trip. From our experience, although before coming to Japan I planned Yokohama as a half day trip, we ended up coming here from the early morning until late at night. We loved every bit, and did not expect to find so much to see and do. We did also stay for a nice dinner by the harbour with the thriving life, countless restaurants and bars, and the lights of the skyscrapers in the background.
We also decided to leave Yokohama towards the last days at our main base in Tokyo before continuing the trip and moving west to the next base, Kyoto. And after two very busy and complete days before visiting the historic city of Nikko and a nice stroll in Nagoya, it worked really good to keep this city for the last day, without any rush nor stress. The best of this is the proximity and the immaculate transport connection with Tokyo downtown, either if this is via the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train at just 20 minutes from Tokyo Station, or if by local JR commuter train, taking a bit longer, approximately 50 minutes however linking you with the train station in downtown Yokohama, and not the bullet train station which is farther away.
The city, like almost any of the large cities in Japan is very new. Not only it was built from 1850’s, but the 1923 earthquake and 1945 WWII took its toll, both in live losses and architecture, being reduced to rubble. Reconstruction followed after the American occupation, but none of the historic buildings severely damages were rebuilt, still, there is a great collection of late 19th century examples through the city. From the late 1980’s however, the city took onto it’s biggest urban project in decades, the Minato Mirai 21 (Port Future 21). Built in reclaimed land to the sea, it’s still today the major draw of the city, where the second tallest building in Japan stands, and back then, the largest Ferris-wheel ever built in the world, in between shopping centres, offices and apartment blocks. An entire new waterfront giving a beautiful skyline.
The Bay area, between Chinatown and Minato Mirai 21 with a beautifully landscaped park at one side and the sea on the other, is quite spectacular and always full of people enjoying around. Right by one of its ends, next to Chinatown is the largest inland lighthouse in the world, nowadays the most beloved landmark from where to see the entire city from above and reaching views as far as Mount Fuji, and the entire Tokyo skyline not far beyond the water. And another unique sight nowhere else in the world you can enjoy, is a 1930’s ocean liner immaculately preserved as a museum. This is the Hikawa Maru; and do not hesitate in entering it otherwise you will for sure regret.
For more information about Yokohama check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Japan’s currency is the Yen (JPY, ¥). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Yokohama
- Kannai District The original settlement of Yokohama and oldest part of the city. Although severely lost after earthquakes and the toll of WWII. Located towards the southeast. The best way to reach this place is by subway to Motomachi-Chukagai Station, as you can walk your way back towards Yokohama train station.
-Chinatown One of the oldest and the largest outside China where the population is still in majority of Chinese origin. Located south of the Yamashita Park. Among its highlights are the Kwan Tai Temple and both the East and Goodwill gates, through the maze of small and narrow streets, and many other gates at every street.
-Yamashita Park Famous for its waterfront views of the Port of Yokohama, a very nice promenade that aligns along the easternmost side of Kannai where right at the opposite side is the Chinatown.
-Marine Tower At the easternmost side of the Yamashita Park, it’s the tallest inland lighthouse in the world. Opened in 1961 it hast an observation deck at over 100 meters with the best views of the city and even Mount Fuji on a clear day. ¥750 adults, ¥600 students, ¥600 seniors.
-Hikawa Maru Once, one of the finest ocean liners of the 1930’s built in Japan for the route Yokohama to Seattle across the Pacific Ocean. Since 1961 it was permanently docked by Yamashita Park pier where it became a museum. ¥300 adults, ¥200 seniors.
- The Promenade – Shinko Wharf Continuing northwest after the Yamashita Park, you are right along the main promenade by the bay, where majority of the historical buildings are. With historical talking I mean these around 80 years old, heavily reconstructed after the earthquakes and WWII.
-Kaiko Square The southernmost point in this part of the promenade, where the Treaty of Amity and Friendship between Japan and the United States was signed in 1854.
-Yokohama Archives of History Housed partly in the former British Consulate building constructed in 1931.
-Kanagawa Prefectural Offices Opposite the Archives, it’s the largest of the historical buildings, in art-deco style.
-The Customs House The next point of interest, also in art-deco style with a tower crown by a dome.
-Elephant’s Trunk Park At the front of the Custom’s House, recently created as a new space for enjoyment and access to the entertainment centre Aka Renga in Shink Wharf, a former industrial port.
-Shinko Wharf Crossing over the bridge from the Elephant’s Park you are in this former industrial port entirely converted into a thriving modern area for entertainment and shopping.
-Red Brick Warehouse Known as Aka Renga, these were the former customs house and then warehouses. Nowadays refurbished as restaurants and bars.
-Cosmo World Built as part of the Minato Mirai 21 that lies across the water, was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world when it was built in 1989 and still doubles as the world’s biggest clock. From here, or even if you take a ride on it of course, you get the best views of the skyline with Minato Mirai.
- Minato Mirai 21 The striking “new” waterfront. The highest buildings in the city, and some of the tallest in the country are around here, built in between the former docks, with fashionable promenades and plenty of attractions for everyone.
-Landmark Tower The second tallest building in Japan and one of the icons in the city’s skyline. There is an observation platform at floor 69 with great views over the bay and farther beyond as the continuous urban fabric built up until your eyes can see (admission ¥1000).
-Nippon Maru Ship At the front of the Landmark Tower by one of the former docks, this 4 masted ship was built in 1930 as a training ship. Nowadays an unmissable part of the city’s skyline.
-Museum of Art Behind the Landmark Tower, it’s huge one of the largest in Japan, newly constructed
The great majority of visitors arrive from nearby Tokyo, where both Narita and Haneda airports are the nearest ones to Yokohama. From Tokyo it’s a short train ride, centre to centre, very convenient and straightforward hence why this is generally considered as another district of Tokyo when planning the sightseeing for that city.
The JR Tokaido Main Line links Tokyo Station and Shinagawa with Shin-Yokohama with trains every 10 min or so. This route is included in the Japan Railway Pass, but remember the faster trains are not included and you should not take it otherwise it will incur in travelling with an invalid ticket and possibly penalty. Your second option if travelling from Tokyo is taking the JR commuter train from many stations in downtown Tokyo directly towards the Yokohama train station which is right behind the Minato Mirai 21. You can use any JR train combination with your JR Pass, so take any first train that you see. The total journey time is between 40 to 50 minutes depending on where you get on/off in Tokyo while in the other hand, you will save time as there is no need for taking the subway once in Yokohama to get to the bay since you arrive few minutes’ walk from there.
If Kyoto is your base, this is a good day trip from there, once again, a fast journey on the Tokaido Shinkansen taking around 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Once in Yokohama, the city has just 2 subway lines and plenty of buses, although your likely need for a public transport would be to get from the Shin-Yokohama bullet train station to the harbour area and the Chinatown, the major tourist areas. If at least you have in mind 3 trips by subway, then get yourself a day travel pass, otherwise a single ticket from Shin-Yokohama to downtown is ¥270. Anywhere else in between you can (and should) walk, distances in between are not that large and it’s great to enjoy such beautiful avenues and parks everywhere.
As we did not stay overnight here since we came from our base Tokyo, literally next door, I cannot recommend any place to stay. In any case being this huge city, you have plenty of choice of any kind although for an even greater one, you have Tokyo. Why to get somewhere else if you are only 20 min away from one to another and Tokyo offers you much more for everything.
A good starting point is running a search across some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. This will give you a good overview on the situation, availability and prices. But if Tokyo is your main base (highly likely as majority of tourist do), check the respective guide with all the information about accommodation and which hotels we stayed and can recommend.