By Matthew Hernon - OCT 31, 2017
A chic and sophisticated shopping district with a European feel, Motomachi Shopping Street is a five block-long stretch of boutiques, shops, cafés and restaurants that attracts customers from all over Japan. A stone's throw from the country's largest Chinatown, the area is known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and for creating one of the most popular fashion styles of the 1970s and 80s: the "hamatora" (short for Yokohama traditional). Mihama, Kitamura and Fukuzo were the three stores that led the trend, and all three are still going strong today.
These shops have played a colorful part in Motomachi's history, which dates back over 150 years to when Yokohama opened its seaport for foreign trade. In January 1860, 90 residents from Yokohama village were forced to move out to a nearby district called Motomura, which later changed its name to Motomachi. Initially it was a quiet farming and fishing town, but that changed in the mid-1870s when a number of foreigners moved into Yamate up on the hill.
"At that time, the business district was in Kannai, so you would have large numbers going through Motomachi to get to work," says Association General Secretary Yuichi Kato. "They needed to buy things like furniture, crockery, bread, beer and various everyday goods so it was the perfect opportunity for local businesses.
"Many new companies emerged providing items that foreign residents couldn't get elsewhere. You had bakeries, tea shops, European clothes stores and so on, many of which are still open today. It piqued the interest of Japanese people who hadn't seen these kinds of establishments before. It became like an exotic town where citizens came to learn about Western culture."
Once the traders left, businessmen and their families arrived. Much of the town was destroyed during World War Two, but U.S. Occupation forces and American military (stationed nearby during the Korean War 1950-53) still required goods so Motomachi continued to thrive. After they departed, however, shopkeepers in the area needed to focus more on domestic consumers. The unique western atmosphere of the shōtengai was a big selling point, but in order to attract even larger numbers, especially younger generations, they would need to make some changes. At the same time, though, it was important to preserve the town's traditions.
"In the 1950s the road width was just eight meters, as mandated by the government, and there was no footpath so it was quite dangerous for pedestrians," says Mr. Kato. "The shopkeepers, all 200 or so of them, decided to get together and set their stores back 1.8 meters from the road to make a walkway. It meant they lost part of their own land, but were prepared to make that sacrifice for the good of the community. One of the most remarkable things about it was that they did all this machizukuri (urban planning) without local government involvement, because they didn't want Motomachi to look the same as everywhere else."
In 1985 the second stage of machizukuri was completed with the street being widened even further and power cables being installed underground so the electric poles could be removed. The third stage, which took place in 2004, saw the opening of Motomachi-Chukagai station, which was less than two minutes from the shopping street. The roads were paved with natural Argentinian stone making it easier for pedestrians to cross. Other improvements included the addition of trees and benches, barrier-free access, lighting, message boards and street furniture.
That same year also saw the official opening of Craftsmanship Street, an area of Motomachi run by secretariat Katsumi Ishido that supports and promotes local artisans. "It has a bit of different vibe compared with the rest of Motomachi," he says. "There is the odd chain shop here and there, but in general the focus is much more on smaller stores. We've got these little art galleries, flower markets, bakeries, accessory shops and more. I think there is quite an artistic feel to the place. There are some amazing craftspeople in this town with some unique products and abilities. We want to give them the platform they deserve. Every quarter we provide a magazine-type pamphlet called Face that features interviews with local artisans and promotes certain items."
Slightly away from the main strip in a quieter part of town, Craftsmanship Street is the location for the annual food fair that takes place every October. It’s a popular event where you can enjoy dishes from famous Motomachi restaurants, which set up stalls and charge cheaper rates than usual. Also in October is the Halloween event in which shops hand out candy to kids in costumes.
From December to February you can enjoy Christmas and Winter illuminations. The Christmas one tends to look pretty spectacular and often features a British-style double-decker bus. It's a fun time to be in Motomachi as there are carols sung on weekends, raffles and of course Santa comes to town to visit the children. The neighborhood turns green in March for the St. Patrick's Day Parade, and in May many policeman and firefighters take to the streets for the Traffic Safety Parade. If classic cars are your thing then it's worth checking out the Yokohama Town Festival that same month.
"We have a number of events every season, but the biggest by far are the Charming Sales that takes place in February and September," says Mr. Kato. "It is our busiest time of the year. We get over five million visitors annually and in those few days I think it’s usually somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people. Motomachi can be a little pricey so naturally people want to come and take advantage of discounts as many shops participate.
"I wouldn't just recommend coming to the town then, however. Motomachi is a lively, fascinating place to visit at any time. There are high-end brands, local products, historical stores, unique shops, amazing bakeries – you name it, we've got it. I also think it's a nice area just to walk around as it has free wi-fi, gorgeous toilet facilities, water stations for dogs and so much more. So, even if you're not interested in shopping, come along anyway.”
Shopping & Dining Recommendations
Events & Festivals
Motomachi Charming Sale
St. Patrick's Day Parade, Yokohama Motomachi
Food Fair, Motomachi Craftsmanship Street
0min. walk from "Motomachi-Chukagai Station" (Motomachi Exit) : Minato-Mirai Line
2min. walk from "Ishikawacho Station" (Motomachi Exit) : JR Keihin-Tohoku Line
15min. by bus form "Sakuragicho Station" : JR Kehin-Tohoku Line, Yokohama Municipal Subway Blue Line