Yokohama (横浜, Japanese for "by the shore") is the second largest city in Japan, with a population of some 3,5 million people. (Osaka comes in third with some 2,6 million.) However, while Yokohama-shi is administratively an independent city, in real life Yokohama forms the southwestern tip of the massive Chiba-Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama urban sprawl and these days mostly plays the part of a mildly upscale suburb, less than half an hour by commuter train (and 15 minutes by Shinkansen) from central Tokyo.

History

Yokohama was a tiny, unimportant fishing village of approximately 100 households until the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet of four black ships at Uraga in 1853, just south of Yokohama. After much negotiation, the parties signed the 1858 US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce , which designated Kanagawa as one of Japan's international trading ports. However, as Kanagawa was strategically important as a way station on the Tokaido and too close for comfort to the capital Edo (now called Tokyo), the shogunate designated Yokohama as the site instead. Today, the Kanagawa river forms the boundary line between the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama.

The settlement and port opened for business one year later on July 1, 1859. A moat was constructed around the area, the area inside reserved for foreigners being called Kannai (関内), "inside the barrier". Initial relations between Japanese isolationists and the hairy barbarians were tense; James Clavell's Gai-Jin provides a fictional account of Yokohama's early days, based on the real-life 1862 murder of British trader Charles Richardson, who was hacked to death by Satsuma samurai. Unfortunately, the tale is not a very good one, both in terms of accuracy and literary skill; Sir Ernest Satow's A Diplomat in Japan, based on his own experiences, does a better job.

Just the same, trade of silk and other commodities started to flourish immediately, and the Meiji Reformation in 1868 and the consequent abolition of the shogunate and the caste system only sped up things. In 1872, a railway to Shinbashi in Tokyo was completed and in 1889 Yokohama was officially registered as a city, at the time with a population of a little over 100,000. The big Japanese trading houses (zaibatsu) like Mitsubishi and Mitsui grew and prospered. Rich merchants constructed magnificent mansions and the city acquired an international flair, which remains a major attraction for the Japanese to this day although most globe-trotters are unlikely to be impressed.

Like Tokyo, Yokohama was flattened in the Great Kanto Earthquake (over 86% of all houses destroyed) and again by the firebombings World War II, which burned 100,000 houses and killed over 40% of the inhabitants. It roses from the ashes and reopened in 1952, but never quite regained its prior status as much of the heavy shipping moved to the port of Kawasaki, closer to Tokyo.

Today, Yokohama is a bustling city of steel skyskrapers and concrete blocks, largely indistinguishable from any other large Japanese city. Unlike Tokyo, however, Yokohama retains a distinct maritime air: the city centers around Yamashita Park by the port, and the proximity of the sea give it a pleasantly airy feel. Surprisingly enough, the center is also small enough to cover on foot if you're in an energetic mood.

Sights

Yokohama's pride and joy is the new Minato Mirai 21 ("Port of the Future 21") quarter, built on reclaimed land near Sakuragicho station and featuring the self-effacingly named Landmark Tower, the current holder of the heavily-contested title of "tallest building in Japan", with 70 stories stretching 296 meters into the air. The area, which remains under construction, already boasts massive shopping malls, hotels, a conference center, an amusement park, a number of company headquarters, etc. A new private subway line is under construction solely to ferry people around the area.

In the older city, still called Kannai although the moat is long gone, the top two sights are undoubtedly Japan's largest Chinatown (中華街, Chukagai), chock full of Chinese restaurants and packed to the brim with ravenous Japanese tourists on the weekends, and Sankei-en Park, an expansive traditional Japanese garden to the south of the center. The third sight gets a bit less coverage in most guidebooks, but the Yokohama Ramen Museum near Shin-Yokohama train station -- featuring not only displays of cup noodle packagings, but a reconstruction of a 1950's-era Tokyo city block complete with 8 gourmet ramen joints -- is the Mecca of Japanese ramen lovers throughout the country.

Events

Yokohama's Minato Matsuri ("Port Festival"), usually held during Golden Week, is by most accounts Japan's most popular yearly event with over 4 million visitors -- which isn't actually all that much, considering the fact that the greater Tokyo metro area has well over 20 million inhabitants.

Other Yokohamas

As you might imagine, "by the shore" is not that uncommon a name and there are quite a few other Yokohamas scattered around Japan. The biggest of the bunch is probably the Yokohama of Aomori prefecture at the base of the Shimokita Peninsula, often called "Mutsu-Yokohama" after the biggest nearby city Mutsu. It's not a terribly interesting place though (and I speak from personal experience), as about the only sight thereabouts is the nearby controversial Rokkashomura nuclear waste reprocessing facility.

Yokohama is also a relatively common Japanese surname.

References

http://www.city.yokohama.jp/ (the one near Tokyo)
http://hello.net.pref.aomori.jp/yokohama/ (the one in the boonies)

I can't believe this was a nodeshell!

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