I’m not a fan of crowds, however, on Jan. 21st, I boarded a local train and headed to Yokohama’s Chinatown to toast the Lunar New Year.
Although the vast majority of Japanese continue to wear masks, particularly when in a crowd, the Japanese love a party. Following the cancellation of many New Year celebrations due to COVID concerns, I imagine this massive cultural celebration had special appeal. The official website promised acrobatics and lion dragon dances at Yamashita-cho Park, firecrackers, and a variety of cultural events between Jan. 22 – Feb. 5.
Many major countries around the world can lay claim to have at least one Chinatowns. Japan’s has three Chinatowns, with Yokohama being the largest.
The history of Yokohama’s Chinatown dates back to 1859. After Yokohama was formally opened to international trade following Japan’s period of self-isolation, merchants from the West and China came to the port for trade. It is said there are more businesses than residents in the 500 square meter area.
Even without the ornate gates, it is immediately obvious that you’re only technically still in Japan. The colors are more vivid. The decor is more extravagant, and the vendors are more direct and engaging.
On an ordinary day in Chinatown, visitors can expect shop and restaurant owners to call out to passersby – a behavior very few Japanese ever do. One of the few blessings about being in a crowd is that it takes all attention off an individual. During this multi-day period of celebration when activity was a full throttle, I was happily invisible.
I had never seen an area in Japan this crowded. The streets were so packed that uniformed police and staff stood on nearly every corner to direct the flow of human traffic.
Despite the face masks, the general atmosphere was one of happiness and excitement. Bright yellow and red lanterns were strung high on every street. When a lion dancer appeared in the street, there was a collective gasp of excitement, and almost every toddler was promptly hoisted atop a parent’s shoulder for the best view.
Kuan Ti Miao Temple
The Gregorian calendar and traditional lunisolar calendar recognize a different start to the year. Regardless of the calendar, visiting a temple is important to both Japanese and Chinese.
The main temple in Chinatown is the Kuan Ti Miao, dedicated to the Chinese god of business and prosperity. It is impossible not to see the temple and think, “That looks NEW.”
The average age of most of the temples I have been to in Japan is 300-400 years old. Nara’s magnificent Todai-ji Temple, was completed in 752 A.D. Temples in Japan are impressively old.
By contrast, Kuan Ti Miao temple has been re-built several times since it was first constructed in 1873. Earthquakes, World War II, and fire all severely damaged the temple. Thus the most current iteration of the Temple is construction is new: 1990.
I paid ¥500 ($3.83) for six surprisingly long incense sticks. I was surprised that the Japanese and Chinese pray differently at temples, and bewildered by the neatly labelled stations outside this temple. Thankfully, a Japanese gentleman in front of me was also confused and asked a Temple staffer about the correct technique was for praying. Following his lead, I deposited one incense stick at each of six stations, bowing deeply three times at each station. (Later that night I did a Google search and read the three bows signified respect to Heaven, Earth and all life.)
Another way Kuan Ti Miao temple differs from most temples in Japan is that we were allowed to keep our shoes on. Inside, artfully placed gifts stood atop temple tables. People took turns worshipping on kneelers – another surprise – before a series of deities.
Foods to Try
It is unfathomable that there should be a cultural celebration in Japan that does not include food!
In my opinion, food is one of the leading reasons many Japanese come to an event. To that extent, the Lunar New Year celebration does not disappoint. My mouth watered for several blocks at the tempting aroma of hot food wafting from shop to shop. The smell of fragrant food was everywhere.
Yokohama’s Chinatown is said to have approximately 600 shops. There are souvenir shops, palm readers, and painters. However, the vast majority of these shops are restaurants.
Japanese patiently queued up in line at stalls eating in the street. I spied Jiandui, sesame seed balls made from rice flour and filled with sweet red bean paste. It is especially delicious when served hot. I bought a package to share at the office because, happily, the balls are microwavable.
In addition to longevity noodles, there were plucked duck hanging neatly in rows behind transparent glass, and glazed red strawberries on sticks. The most popular street foods appeared to be whole fried octopus on a stick, and green and white dumplings. Dumplings are a staple of Chinese cuisine, and because they are associated with wealth, they are the perfect food to mark the new year.
Do you know what I did NOT see?
(As almost everyone will tell you, fortune cookies are not authentically Chinese.)
If You Go
Yokohama’s Chinatown is well worth a visit and is easily accessible from both Tokyo and Yokosuka. The closest station is Motomachi-Chukagai Station.
Some practices and behaviors are very different in Chinatown. For example, whereas tipping in Japan can either result in confusion or be considered an insult, Chinatown restaurants accept tips. Another difference is that whereas most Japanese businesses clearly mark an item’s price, some businesses in Chinatown – such as fruit vendors – will quote a price, and then be open to negotiation.
It is a fun place to spend a morning or afternoon.
Given the regional tensions, a jaunt through Chinatown is a glimpse at a rich culture. It also leaves me with a sense of what a delicate balance exists whenever a new culture is introduced. I imagine that those who visit leave with the same hope: that diverse cultures and people can find a way to co-exist peacefully.
Happy Year of the Rabbit – here’s wishing you a safe and wonderful year ahead!