By Matthew Hernon - OCT 31, 2017
A lively neighborhood in the heart of Yokohama, Noge was described as the "city's soul" by author Burritt Sabin, despite the fact that "for most people it is out of sight, out of mind."
Since the 1980s the vast majority of tourists have been exiting Sakuragicho station on the north side. The construction of Minato Mirai 21, which began in 1983, completely transformed the area from a heavy industries shipyard run by Mitsubishi to a futuristic town full of state-of-the-art buildings, and it became one of the country's most popular destinations. At the same time, the south side of the station remained largely untouched.
It is in this part of town where the Noge district can be found. There are no skyscrapers or bright lights, just many small bars and izakayas in close proximity. Locals will tell you it looks and feels like the Showa era from 40 or 50 years ago and therein lies its charm.
"Around Tokyo and Yokohama, you will find many 'new' areas or places that have redeveloped in recent times that look great, but often lack heart and can sometimes feel cold," says Noge’s ex-chairperson Mr. Moro. "Here things are different. There aren't really any luxurious restaurants or beautifully designed buildings. What we do have is a huge selection of shops serving all kinds of food and drink. It's a real community atmosphere as people from outside the city gather with locals, going from one bar to the next. It's how Japan used to be."
Noge officially became part of Yokohama City on April 1, 1889 (Meiji 22). It had developed into a prosperous business district thanks in large part to the construction of Japan's first railway line between Tokyo and Yokohama (near Sakuragicho) two decades earlier. Like much of the city, Noge was badly damaged following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and was left desolate after World War Two.
Despite the grim situation in 1945, Noge managed to rise from the ashes. The U.S. forces took over buildings that were left standing in Isezakicho and Kannai, so locals decided to take refuge in unoccupied Noge.
"It was a desperate time for most of the country," says Mr. Moro. "People were starving, they couldn't afford to buy things, there were shortages of supplies and hardly any shops. When things get that bad, all you can do is come together as a community and try to make the best of the situation."
And that is exactly what the people of Noge did. "They got food from occupation warehouses and trash cans to sell on the black market," Mr. Moro continues. "You had over 400 stalls on the main street alone. It wasn't all food either, there was alcohol and all kinds of goods. The slogan back then was ”you can get anything in Noge.” Massive crowds gathered and there was a huge sense of camaraderie. I think you can still feel it in the area today."
Noge was the place to go in Yokohama and soon became the city's entertainment hub. All of a sudden theaters were popping up in the neighborhood, most notably the Kokusai Gekijo (International Theater), which in 1948 played host to 10-year-old singer named Kazue Kato. After wowing audiences, she then recorded her first single two years later under a different name; Misora Hibari. A cultural icon she went on to become the country's most well-known and loved enka singer. Her statue can be found near Sakuragicho station.
Around the same time that Hibari started making a name for herself in Japan, the popularity of jazz music started to skyrocket in the country with Yokohama, and particularly Noge, leading the way. American troops, wanting to listen to live shows, would hire locals to perform at clubs in the area. A lot of jazz tracks were permitted only within military facilities, yet some managed to find their way into bars in Noge, most notably Chigusa.
First opened in 1933, Chigusa is the oldest jazz cafe in Japan. Many of the regulars went on to become famous musicians in their own right, including legendary pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. The 14-time Grammy Award nominee and only Japanese person entered into the International Jazz Hall of Fame, she apparently spent hours in the place during her youth listening to her favorite American songs. Developers forced Chigusa's closure in 2007, but a campaign by locals led to it being reopened five years later at the same location. It remains one of the iconic buildings in all of Yokohama.
There are many other jazz cafes, bars and clubs in Noge, and sometimes the music spills out on to the streets. Down the years there have been numerous jazz events (usually in autumn) including the Jazz Promenade and Jazz Bon Odori (a style of Japanese dance performed during the obon season).
Another popular festival is Daidogei, considered one of the top three street performance festivals in the country. It began in 1986 as an attempt to revitalize the neighborhood following the construction of Minato Mirai 21, and takes place in spring and autumn. There are both domestic and international performers entertaining large crowds with juggling, acrobatics, pantomime, balloon art and so much more. At the same time, various food and drink stalls line the streets.
"There are many daidogei festivals in Japan, but what makes Noge's stand out is the inclusiveness," says Mr. Moro. "Just watching something can become tedious so we like to create an environment where people can join in. It's especially good for kids as there's a merry-go-round, tug-of-war, handicrafts and that kind of thing. It's also important to create an exciting event so attendees will carry on afterwards. Our autumn festival this year features a beer garden, wrestling, jazz and samba. It finishes at 9pm, but hopefully a lot of people will want to continue partying long in to the night."
According to Mr. Moro, during the daytime you can often count the number of visitors to Noge by hand. In the evening, it's a completely different story as the neighborhood comes alive. "It's just a fun place to eat and drink," says Mr. Moro. "I wouldn't say to people come to Noge to see this or do that, I would just say come to Noge and experience it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it."
Shopping & Dining Recommendations
Events & Festivals
Noge Street Performance
Noge Autumn Jazz Festival
3min. walk from "Sakuragicho Station" : JR Kehin-Tohoku/Negishi Line, Yokohama Municipal Subway Blue Line
3min. walk from "Hinodecho Station" : Keikyu Line