Welcome to Yokohama

By Matthew Hernon – OCT 31, 2017

From the bustling shopping arcades to its tranquil parks and gardens, Yokohama is a charming city that caters for people of all ages and interests. A small fishing village up to the end of the feudal Edo period, Yokohama was transformed in the mid to late 1800s when Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of American warships arrived at the port demanding that it open up for commerce. The area became a central hub for foreign trade in Japan and grew rapidly as a result. The port district was developed for silk trading, particularly with the United Kingdom, and in 1887 British merchant Samuel Cocking built the city's first power plant. On April 1,1889, the municipal government was officially established.

Almost 150 years on and Yokohama has recovered from the Great Kanto earthquake, World War Two and various other disasters to become one of the most modern and cosmopolitan cities in the country. There are numerous fantastic restaurants, cafes, bars, live music arenas and sporting venues. In 2019 Yokohama's Nissan Stadium will play host to the Rugby World Final, having already hosted the FIFA World Cup final between Brazil and Germany back in 2002.

The harbor area, known as Minato Mirai, has a breath-taking night-view and there's also plenty to see there during the day as well. There's a wide range of museums in the city, spectacular contemporary architecture and an abundance of greenery. Popular sites include the 296.3m (972ft) high Landmark Tower, one of the world's largest Chinatowns, a cup noodle museum, the historic red brick warehouse, the stylishly designed Osanbashi Pier and the idyllic Sankei-en Garden.

For those more interested in shopping than sightseeing, Yokohama has plenty to offer. There are many fashionable and lively shopping districts in the area and though they can get crowded, particularly on weekends, it is nothing like the hustle and bustle of neighboring Tokyo. There are several large shopping malls, multiple well-known department stores, high-end boutiques, discount shops and various other establishments selling unique goods.

In addition to all that, there are of course a large number of shōtengai (商店街). For those unfamiliar with the word, it means a lively shopping arcade or street with all kinds of stores where you can feel a sense of history and the warmth of local people when you shop.

Yokohama Shōtengai: The Heart and Soul of the City

For all its modernity, Yokohama remains a very traditional city. Look beyond the skyscrapers and futuristic buildings and you will find many long-established bars and restaurants, located in conventional neighborhoods. This feeling of history and tradition is perhaps best reflected in the local shōtengai.

In the past, these shopping districts were seen as the heart and soul of a Japanese town or city. Catering to the needs of nearby residents, they were (and still are) located in urban residential neighborhoods, usually near a train station or in the center of town. As well as having a mixture of specialist vegetable, fish, meat and other daily necessity shops, there were also stores providing services such as dry cleaning and hair styling.

These days when you walk down a shōtengai you will probably see a number of chain stores and large establishments that you can find all over the city such as small supermarkets, convenience stores, pachinko parlors and 100-yen shops. Things have certainly changed over the past ten or twenty years, however, the unique atmosphere that makes these shopping arcades so special remains thanks to the mom-and-pop businesses that are still prominent throughout Yokohama.

The true appeal of the shōtengai lies with these tiny enterprises. The meat and fish may cost a little more than it would at a nearby supermarket, but there's real value in their produce that makes it worth it: The satisfaction of contributing to a local community rather than helping to make a major corporation that much richer. For the local butcher or tea-seller it isn't just a job. In a lot of cases this has been their livelihood for decades. They take great pride in what they do and treat customers – many of whom they've known for a number of years – like friends.

It is a great example of 'omotenashi'; the word that played a pivotal role in Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Olympics. It is usually defined as Japanese hospitality, but in reality goes much deeper than that, referring to an elevated act of politeness, making customers feel important and genuinely respected. It's not only locals that get this kind of treatment, though. If you have the chance to visit a shōtengai in Yokohama you will probably see shopkeepers happily chatting with tourists, explaining in more detail the products on sale and often providing samples.

Many of the people working in a shōtengai tend to be more than just shopkeepers. Traditionally seen as the backbone of the Japanese neighborhood, they help to keep the city clean and play a big role in arranging festivals, school events and sports activities. While the local associations remain fairly strong, over the past few years the economic situation has become more and more of a concern and some shopkeepers are struggling to stay afloat.

Deregulation has exacerbated the situation. Discount stores, large retailers and supermarkets pay very little when they buy in bulk, meaning they can sell their goods at heavily discounted prices. Also, people have less time these days than in the past so many shoppers want to get all their groceries and necessities at one place or online rather than hopping between shops. Convenience and price have made it difficult for mom-and-pop stores to compete.

Yet, despite all of these challenges, shōtengai shopkeepers in the city remain extremely positive. When you speak to them, it soon becomes abundantly clear how passionate they are about their stores. Walking around these shopping arcades you can feel a real energy. They are as much a part of what makes Yokohama great as the 21st century buildings and serene gardens. There are plenty of shōtengai to choose from, so if you are in town make sure you visit at least one.

Popular Shopping Streets

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