By Paul Mcinnes - OCT 31, 2017
Yokohama, as a city, tends to favor visually impactful, larger-than-life structures and architecture. Step off the train at Sakuragicho station, for example, and you’re met with one of the most recognizable skylines in the country. Head to the furthest end of Gumyoji shōtengai and you’ll come across one of the most dramatic entrances you’ve ever seen.
Gumyoji shopping street is set up like a magician’s slow reveal. Stroll down the 300-meter-long, covered shopping arcade and be met at the other end by the pure majesty of Gumyoji Temple and its ancient artefacts. In fact the temple is one of the oldest in this part of Japan and is revered by locals and visitors alike.
It’s only five kilometers from Minato Mirai but it’s connected to that part of the city by Ooka River, which links everything together. The riverbank is also the site of the annual cherry blossom viewing festival in late March or early April. It’s famous in these parts and as pretty as a picture. Around a quarter of a million people walk through the Gumyoji area taking in the cherry blossoms, and drinking and eating to their heart’s content. In fact Gumyoji is the only shōtengai in the country that has a functioning river running through the middle of it, which makes it quite special.
It’s very much an old-style shopping arcade, and dates back about 70 years. Presently there are around 100 to 130 stores and the street attracts an average of 13,000 people a day, which is good going for a local retail street. Like most old-school arcades there is a plethora of different stores such as cafés, bars and restaurants, interior stores, clothing shops and amusement and entertainment areas.
The history of this collectivized and unionized street is quite similar to other shōtengai in Yokohama such as Yoshidamachi. During the war era it served as a black market and although not as Americanized as other streets, such as Honmoku or Bashamichi, the area still holds the hustle and bustle and haggling of the old days.
Mr. Yujin Hosoi and Mr. Yasuhiro Hasegawa of the Gumyoji Shotengai Association explain that although the area doesn’t really have a high level of tourist foot traffic it’s something they would love to see changing in coming years. Mr. Hosoi says, “Yes, there aren’t many foreign tourists right now but it’s something we’re actively trying to address. We are looking to install free wi-fi, translate menus into a variety of languages and even employ some foreign staff members. There are quite a lot of international students who live in and around this area so ideally we’d like to grab their attention and make it easier for them to come along to the shōtengai and experience it firsthand.”
The shōtengai community has already started to make progress in attracting foreign tourism by hosting activities such as a tour of the temple, sakura (cherry blossom) events, and even a special program to teach people how to make wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). It’s a genuinely heartfelt approach to reaching out to the foreign community, and Mr. Hosoi and Mr. Hasegawa also point out that they are actively using various forms of social media to start an active dialogue with both locals and foreigners. So far the street has a Facebook and Instagram page and, like other shōtengai, is realizing that media is a shrewd way to engage with customers in real time.
Mr. Hosoi also wants to tackle the demographic of the area. Like the majority of shōtengai all over the country, the average customer is usually middle-aged or in retirement. There’s nothing particularly unusual or negative about this as Japan has a well-publicized aging population. However, any shopping mall that manages to tap into the youth market will both diversify and strengthen its customer base, and Gumyoji is trying to attract younger families in the local area.
Mr. Hosoi also states that the role of the shōtengai is “about educating children too. In Japanese we say ‘aisatsu (greetings)’ and the kids can learn about interacting with shopkeepers, adults and other young people. We also want to create a safe environment for children and young families too.”
It’s refreshing to meet two young men like Mr. Hosoi and Mr. Hasegawa who have such a fresh take on operating a shopping arcade. It’s not about polarizing certain sections of the community. It’s about cohesion and understanding, and that’s what makes Gumyoji such a wonderful and magical area.
So there’s no excuse not to jump on the Keikyu line from Yokohama station to Gumyoji station and pay your respects to Gumyoji Kannon, which is the main deity of the temple. It’s said that the main hall dates back to around 1044, and belongs to the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s such a lovely temple and a great introduction to the area as a whole.
Take a stroll down the riverside and admire the trees and blossoms before heading back to the shōtengai to stock up on fresh, local produce and knick-knacks that are perfect for gifts and souvenirs. The arcade also has its fair share of bars and restaurants so after a long day touring the temple, river and shopping street, what better way to rest your feet than to sit down with a cold beer or lemon sour. One recommended spot is Shitamachi no Calbee, a barbecue-style restaurant that’s run by a very charming and friendly Osaka native who looks after your every need.
Very much like Western countries are known for putting on markets where people congregate in a large opening or square, Japan has mastered the long, winding and diverse shopping arcade. Roughly 15 minutes from Yokohama station by train, Gumyoji has everything you possibly need in addition to being historically important and aesthetically engaging.
Shopping & Dining Recommendations
Events & Festivals
From Early June to Late July
Tanabata Festival (the Star Festival)
From Late November to Early January
Ookagawa River Illumination
3min. Walk from "Gumyoji Station": Keikyu Line
Near "Gumyoji Station": Yokohama municipal Subway Blue Line