General

Yokohama: city of wide horizons

by Burritt Sabin

Yokohama owes its rise to political compromise and a natural harbor. The Tokugawa shogunate and Commodore Perry, on the occasion of his return in 1854, could not agree on a parley site to discuss the opening of Japan to trade. The shogunate insisted on Uraga; Perry demanded entrance to Edo. The two sides struck a compromise — the miserable village of Yokohama.

The subsequent treaty brought Yokohama’s deep-water harbor to the eyes of the world. Ships of the maritime powers called. The young city prospered from the export of silk and tea.

The sailor was the object of the landsman’s attention in Yokohama. Entrepreneurs built livery stables that provided him with ponies in exchange for his surplus dollars. He galloped down streets with occasional tragic consequences; in 1867 an American bluejacket ran down a Japanese woman. Yorinaka Tsumaki designed the Yokohama Specie Bank (now Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History) with a harborward entrance for his convenience. Foreign residents of Christian conscience founded a sailors’ home where he could obtain a bed and dinner but no drink, for the home was established on temperance principles, although attendance at meetings, with harmonium accompaniment, was optional.

But “the waterside pot-houses proved a stronger attraction,” a British officer lamented in 1889. The “pot-houses” numbered 24 on Chinatown’s fringes as early as 1865. The seaman’s lot was a hard one in the 19th century. He sought solace in drink and vented his frustration with his fists or a knife. His potation’s grisly results gave the grog-shop quarter its name: Bloodtown.

British and French soldiers battled Russian sailors in Bloodtown one day in the early 1870s. The fighters took to roofs and hurled tiles at the enemy in the street. The donnybrook ended with the Russians’ retreat to the harbor.

It was in a Bloodtown dive that Rudyard Kipling heard the tale of the sea fight upon which he based his poem, “Rhyme of the Three Sealers.” In 1893 a young American writer drank himself blind in a Bloodtown saloon and then swam to his schooner. The writer, Jack London, later spun a yarn from the stunt.

The sailor slaked his thirst in Bloodtown until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but satisfied his libido in a bawdy district that shifted with the frequency of Japan’s ancient capital. Fire was the prime mover. The “Pig Pen Fire” in 1866 reduced the Miyozakicho licensed quarter, with its Gankiro house for foreigners, to cinders. The shogunate established a new quarter to the west. This burned down, and in 1872 the Meiji government created a fresh lotus land in Takashimacho, an area reclaimed from the Noge inlet.

In the same year, Japan’s first train began chugging between Yokohama and Tokyo’s Shimbashi. Diplomats’ wives blushed at the sight through the train window of the faux turrets of the Jimpuro house. Prostitution was one thing the government was loath to advertise while it labored for the revision of the “unequal treaties” concluded with the Western powers in the 1950s.

The government moved the quarter to Eirakucho after 1882. The Jimpuro catered to foreigners at a branch in the post town of Kanagawa on the Tokaido, and to Japanese at one in the new quarter. The Jimpuro was also known as No. 9, the original house’s Takashimacho address. It gained lasting notoriety through mention in Kipling’s poem “McAndrew’s Hymn.”

Isezakicho, the theater district, lay between Kannai and Eirakucho. The whoremonger now tarried in the rialto, and his patronage raised the district to a fresh apex of animation and color. Rickshaws, mobile restaurants and drays rolled down streets between banners with playhouse names in bold theater calligraphy. There were bathhouses and teahouses, kabuki and raree shows, archery galleries and curio shops. A stroll along Isezakicho came to be called “Ise-bura” around 1930, as bura is the Japanese for “to stroll.”

Isezakicho remains true to its plebeian roots. Though conversion to a pedestrian mall in 1978 formalized Ise-bura, people still stroll there between haberdashers and kimono shops, secondhand booksellers and coffeehouses, movie theaters and arcades blaring a cacophony of bells, synthetic voices, and monotonous hurdy-gurdy. They eat at the Yokohama Curry Museum, and place bets at Excel Isezaki. The snake-medicine dealer Hebiya presents a storefront that recalls the raree shows of bygone days. Grizzled sandwich-men advertise casinos. Seamen saunter by on the way to the Korean market. Sundown brings guitarists who serenade with folk songs on every block.

“Chabuya?” said the rickshawmen to the sailor. The sailor would have flashed a matchbox, and the human horse nodded assent, lifted the shafts, and trotted toward Kominato, Honmoku. The matchbox showed an ocean liner with “Let’s go to Star Hotel” on its port side; or a beribboned white cat sipping a cocktail, the Umenoya Hotel’s logo; or perhaps a flapper and beau doing the Charleston at the Hotel No. 2 Kiyo. “Chabuya” was rickshawman-speak for “chophouse.”

The chabuya originated in the teahouses along the carriage road the Tokugawa shogunate laid from the Foreign Settlement around to the Honmoku shore and back to keep settlers from the Tokaido in the 1860s. Soon the houses were sating more than thirst. Chabuya mushroomed along the carriage road and in Kannai. Finally the authorities rounded them up into two zones, the largest of which was in Kominato, behind today’s Yamate Police Station.

The Kominato quarter comprised dozens of hotels. Their women were not inmates, as were the licensed-quarter sorority; they were free to come and go as they pleased. They were modern and wistful. They were Yumeji Takehisa’s Taisho women sans kimono. In the 1920s, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki lived next door to the chabuya Kiyo House. He observed the women and modeled Naomi, the heroine of his first major novel, “Chijin no Ai,” after them. Likewise Jiro Osaragi made the Honmoku women the model for O-Hana in his “Muteki.” A Kominato chabuya inspired Hattori Ryoichi to compose his hit song “Separation Blues” for Noriko Awaya.

The chabuya were two-story wooden buildings with bar, piano and dance floor on the first floor and rooms on the second. Save for the creaking of a rickshaw or the laughter of mellow tars, the quarter lay still, until a door swung open and the blues spilled into the street. Couples spun from dance floor to stairs to boudoir. Through a window opened for the sea breeze came the plangent sound of waves and the flashes of harbor lights.

For crewmen of a ship entering port, the chabuya quarter would have come into view as an exotic dreamscape at a voyage’s end. Tanizaki said all crewmen on ships calling at Yokohama knew Kiyo House. So the chabuya quarter would have been known in ports throughout the world.

The chabuya quarter fit Honmoku. The promontory ringed by wide beaches at the feet of dun-colored piney cliffs had been celebrated for its beauty since the Edo Period. Hara Zenzaburo, a wealthy silk merchant, built a villa on a Honmoku hilltop around 1887.

Tomitaro, his adopted son, created there the marvelous Sankeien Garden in 1906. Fishing there one day, Kenzo Adachi, a conservative politician, looked up at the cliffs and was inspired to build a sanctuary for boys’ moral education, in 1933.

Dancing on the beach

Sensuality followed beauty. Foreigners built second homes among copses along the shore. Japanese put up beach houses for those who did not. The foreigners swam, and after sunset they cranked up the phonograph and danced on the beach by the light of headlamps. More than one local lass danced her first blues in the automotive spotlight on a midsummer’s night. The copses and rocks would have invited al fresco dalliance.

In the distance glowed the chabuya’s neon. The anti-prostitution law extinguished the chabuya’s lights in 1958. The municipal government reclaimed the Honmoku littoral in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nothing cools ardor like concrete. Honmoku’s loss of sensuality was complete. Sankeien and Adachi’s sanctuary, Hasseiden, merit a visit, but the ocean no longer showcases the original inspiration — the sea view.

U.S. bombers reduced central Yokohama to smoke and ashes on May 29, 1945. Three months later the U.S. Eighth Army squatted in the surviving buildings. The violence returned. The Japanese found haven in Noge, the quarter between the Ookagawa and Sakuragawa rivers, southwest of Sakuragicho. They drank rotgut in Whale Alley and gambled in the black market.

Noge remains the most authentically Japanese part of downtown. Its bars and eateries hang shingles in kanji. Its ornamentation is the willow and hanging lantern. It remains a haven. Jazzmen have venues. Gays cotton with one another in dozens of bars. Monologists perform at the Nigiwai-za variety hall. The children of paradise gather for the Street Performers Festival every April.

On the seaward side of Sakuragicho soar the Minato Mirai 21 skyscrapers. Minato Mirai 21, a port redevelopment scheme launched in 1982, embodies the city’s vision of the 21st-century port. It is a vision of tourism and conventions.

In Yokohama, the tourist’s satisfaction has brought happy results. Post-earthquake buildings on the Bluff have been refurbished and opened to the public. Some of the best of the Kannai district’s architectural heritage has been preserved and is illuminated at night. The rickshaw has revived to trundle the tourist between sightseeing spots. The seaside elevated railway was converted to a harborside promenade from Yamashita Park’s west end. The walk is best made at night, when Minato Mirai 21 heaves into view like the Emerald City as the walkway wends to the Red Brick Warehouses, built in the early 20th century and recently remodeled as restaurants and bars and concert and exhibition spaces.

The Kishamichi Promenade takes the walker over two artificial islands and three bridges above dark waters reflecting the lights of the CosmoWorld amusement park. Lone women whisper “massage” to passing masculinity on Isezakicho. Inmates of the Koganecho’s riverside brothels beckon. Akebonocho glows a gauntlet of “fashion health” parlors — Yokohama retains its eroticism.

Since the days of GIs from Vietnam in Yokohama for R&R, the city has been liberated from violence of the real kind. In Toho’s next Godzilla film the monster will rise from the waters off Minato Mirai 21. The sparkling Emerald City is now the cynosure. The violence is on celluloid. Yokohama has shaken the real monster and come into the klieg lights.