At 4:57 on the morning of Feb. 1, a navy-blue and yellow train pulled out of Motomachi-Chukagai Station bound for Yokohama Station, connecting with through services from there to Shibuya via the Tokyu Toyoko Line.

With that, services on the Minatomirai 21 Line, Japan’s newest subway, had begun, and that afternoon a parade through Yokohama’s Chinatown reflected great expectations riding on a 4.1-km route seen as holding the key to the future (mirai) of the port (minato) its name embodies.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the line shares the name of the mega port-redevelopment project between Kannai and the Yokohama Station area. The Minato Mirai 21 district, which was conceived during the years of the bubble economy to revitalize Yokohama by diversifying its economy. But then the bubble popped.

“MM21 was expected to have a working population of 190,000 by 2002,” said Hiroo Ota, chief of the Transportation Dept. of the Yokohama Minatomirai Railway Co . “Today only 50,000 work there.” Ota and Yokohama City hope the new railway’s two stations in the district — Minato Mirai and Shin-Takashima — will stimulate development and pull in tenants.

Ota expects a daily average of 137,000 passengers, in which case the line will take 30 years to recoup its 257 billion yen cost — even with its relatively high minimum fare of 180 yen. However, the railway company kept down construction costs by integrating tunnels and stations with existing infrastructure, so allowing direct access from stations to car parks and buildings.

Also, in planning this line through through the heart of the historic port city, Yokohama Minatomirai Railway Company eschewed railway architects in favor of town planners and building designers — people with records of achievement but also youthful vision. Then it gave them carte blanche to create a station befitting its surroundings. The designers exceeded expectations.

Take, for example, Motomachi-Chukagai, the station straddling Motomachi and Chinatown (Chukagai). Motomachi, now a street of swank eateries, coffeehouses and boutiques, originated when farmers were relocated there from Yokohama Village to make room for a foreign settlement in 1859. Then, when foreigners were permitted to build on the hill to the east in 1866, Motomachi and its people flourished as purveyors of then-exotic goods and services from abroad to the newcomers from overseas.

Chinatown, across a canal from Motomachi, also owes its origin to the opening of Yokohama for trade, when Chinese from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Nagasaki flocked to the newly opened port in the 1860s. Since then it has been a place of kaleidoscopic change — hotbed of revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century; grog quarter from the late 1940s through the early ’70s; and restaurant-rich tourist spot today.

Architect Toyo Ito drew on the rich history of Motomachi and Chinatown for the design of Motomachi-Chukagai Station. His concept was “A Graphical Book,” which tells the story of young Yokohama through enlarged picture-postcard images of the early city printed on pure-white porcelain tiles.

Twenty-four meters underground, the effect is marvelous as images of Motomachi give way to Chinatown streetscapes as you walk toward the vermilion quarter. You recognize Heichinro, Chinatown’s oldest restaurant, serving toothsome Cantonese cuisine since 1887 and credited with creating sanma men, noodles in a thick sauce topped with sauted vegetables.

Moving along to the concourse and the walls there show life-size images from the city’s past, including Dr. Hepburn, author of the first Japanese-English dictionary, an old ice-cream vendor, satirical drawings from Charles Wirgman’s Japan Punch, matchbox labels and sailing yachts.

While Ito was creating a subterranean paean to the ghosts of Yokohama past, above ground Motomachi was sprucing up for the influx of visitors. Some of the world’s top clothing retailers, including Brooks Brothers and Cyrillus, jostled for space around the Motomachi entrance of the new station. Barneys New York had been the first overseas clothing retailer to appreciate the railway’s potential, when it built a store in nearby Yamashita-cho in 1994.

Chinatown is also smartening up. The Choyo-Mon (main gate) got a facelift, and an information center opened beside it. Utility cables on the main drag are being buried and by autumn the sidewalks will have been made barrier-free, said Tadayasu Abe, Managing Trustee of the Yokohama Chinatown Development Association.

Yokohama Daisekai (China Museum), an eight-story food and entertainment complex, opened midway between the Choyo-Mon and Motomachi-Chukagai Station on Nov. 30 last year. The complex (admission 500 yen) recreates Shanghai in the 1920s and ’30s. You can observe artisans at work, watch a potted performance of Beijing opera, dine at one of 12 restaurants and shop in the first-floor market.

Nihon-Oodori Station, first from the Motomachi railhead, prepares you for what lies above through an arch motif and lavish use of brick that induce the illusion of stepping from the rail car into a building interior. The concourse evokes congeries of historical buildings.

The buildings on Nihon-Oodori are some of the city’s earliest structures built after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Many have been turned into museums.

The former Yokohama Commercial and Industrial Promotion Building (1927) is now the Yokohama Media and Communications Center, including the Japan Newspaper Museum and Broadcast Library.

The building houses three other Nihon-Oodori attractions: the Lunchan Avenue cafe and grill; Alte Liebe “kaffeehaus und musikrestaurant,” founded in 1963; and the refined Cafe de la Presse — which all showcase the building’s classic styling with art deco accent.

On the next block toward the harbor is the Yokohama Archives of History, housed in the former British consulate. The archives are both a world-class research facility and a miniature museum of early Yokohama history.

Across the street is Scandia, also recommended as a place to dine after a stroll along Museum Mile. Scandia Garden, on the first floor, is noted for its variety of Scandinavian dishes, while the Restaurant Scandia above is the place for a genuine smorgasbord.

The cultural assets along Nihon-Oodori have been comparatively underutilized, partly owing to the absence of convenient rail access. The opening of the new station should bring a tsunami of visitors to the area.

Bashamichi Station, between Nihon-Oodori and Minato Mirai, further illustrates how the new railway takes you forward to the past.

Architect Hiroshi Naito, who designed the station, has both recreated the past through walls of brick laid on site by masons, and captured the future in reinforced-glass rails, acrylic chairs and a vast central dome. Relics of the old main branch of Yokohama Bank and other buildings that once stood above the present site now tessellate station walls.

Emerge from the station via Exit 5 and step back into Japan of the early 20th century, when Bashamichi was the Wall Street of Yokohama. Prominent among the surrounding masonry is the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History, the former Yokohama Specie Bank (1904). An evening stroll between the swanky coffeehouses and restaurants of gas-lit Bashamichi delights.

Two restaurants are recommended. Seikoen dishes up Cantonese fare under the direction of celebrity chef Tomiteru Shu. Jubankan serves French cuisine in its third-floor restaurant. Its first floor is a tearoom with ritzy Meiji Era decor, and its second floor is an English pub. Its banquet rooms are a favorite gathering place of the local literati. Its equally elegant sister restaurant is the Yamate Jubankan (est. 1967), overlooking the Foreigners’ Cemetery, on the hill above Motomachi-Chukagai Station.

From Bashamichi the railway meets its namesake. Minatomirai Station is connected to Queen’s East, a department store in MM21’s center. Architect Kunio Hayakawa designed the station on the motif of a ship. The tubular concourse seems of supertanker length. The blue and white stripes and funnel-like ventilation ducts continue the nautical theme on the platform level.

Many will embark on Hayakawa’s fanciful vessel, but few will make the giddy ride on architect Masahiko Yamashita’s escalator from the fifth-basement platform to second-basement wicket at Shin-Takashima Station. Its exits lead nowhere. Viewed from Minato Mirai Oodori Blvd., the station looks like a polar base camp, the sheer-white exits forlorn huts in a barren landscape.

With the opening of the Minatomirai Line, the Tokyu Corporation discontinued service between the Sakuragicho railhead and Yokohama Station. The people of Noge, a warren of hole-in-the-wall honky-tonks, jazz joints and greasy spoons across Route 16 from Sakuragicho, had protested because closing the line from the railhead would reduce their customers. The city had sacrificed their interests for a redevelopment scheme benefiting Mitsubishi and other big corporations, they complained.

The city tossed Noge’s people a sop in the form of refurbished sidewalks, fancier and brighter streetlights and a dedicated underground passage, the Noge Chikamichi, from Sakuragicho. But gentrification can’t compensate for the loss of the railway.

A piece of good news for Noge is a plan to convert the former elevated track into a promenade from Sakuragicho to Tammachi, the station beyond Yokohama. Walkers will want to sit awhile and slake their thirst at Noge’s homey watering holes.

The people of Honmoku, the promontory on the city’s south side, have not had a rail service since trams last juddered down Honmoku-dori some 30 years ago. Honmoku residents have long dreamed a subway line would reach them. The Minatomirai line stopped short of Honmoku. Yet their dream may still be fulfilled.

The Association for LRT in Yokohama, an NGO headquartered in the old Fuji Bank Building on Bashamichi, is promoting a plan for a light-rail transit system to connect Motomachi-Chukagai Station and JR Negishi Station. The LRTS would facilitate access to Sankeien Garden in Honmoku and close a rail loop from Yokohama Station to Negishi and back. The association, too, has a dream — completion of the LRTS by 2009, the 150th anniversary of the opening of Yokohama.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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