Savor a city’s soul


A rusted observation platform on the eastern edge of Nogeyama Hill commands views across central Yokohama — from the Western houses on the Bluff to the Landmark Tower in the Minato Mirai district. At the hill’s foot, behind the up-slope march of buildings, lies Noge, its inconspicuousness emblematic.

For most people, Noge is out of sight, out of mind. This is ironic, because as its name — meaning “headland” — suggests, it once jutted seaward, and Noge folk were fishermen until the adjacent inlet was reclaimed for a roadway between the Tokaido Highway and the foreign settlement, founded in Yokohama in 1859. The Kanagawa Magistrate’s Office was established on a nearby hilltop, and Japanese troops were garrisoned in neighboring Ota village.

Noge’s erstwhile fishermen then became purveyors of goods and services to the bureaucrats. The bureaucracy relocated, but Noge continued to develop as a commercial center. As well as catering to pilgrims to Fudo Noge temple and the Grand Shrine of Iseyama, established on the hills at the quarter’s rear in 1870, it served the needs of passengers on Japan’s first railroad, opened in 1872 between Sakuragicho and Shimbashi, and workers at Yokohama Dock Co., founded in 1897.

On May 29, 1945, though, U.S. B-29s turned Yokohama to smoke and ashes. Three months later the U.S. Eighth Army squatted in the few buildings still standing in Isezakicho and Kannai. Big white or black men in small vehicles, as described by the self-censored Japanese press, victimized the locals. The Japanese took refuge in unoccupied Noge. A black market flourished along Noge-hondori. At stalls along the Sakuragawa River discharged soldiers drank rotgut and scarfed fried whale meat. Vagabonds slept in doorways. Noge distilled the postwar chaos and confusion.

Theaters sprang up. The MacArthur received its name through public solicitation and selection by notables. An off-track betting palace, built near the International Theater, rounded out this entertainment quarter.

At the International Theater in May 1948, a 10-year-old local lass belted out “Tokyo Boogie-Woogie” in a throaty, sensual voice. She drew tumultuous applause and an invitation to perform at the Nichigeki in Tokyo. She cut her first record at age 12, and shortly afterward starred in her first film. “In my right pocket a dream / In my left pocket chewing gum ,” she sang in a later film, 1950’s “Tokyo Kid.” She lifted the spirits of the beggared nation. She was, by popular acclaim, the greatest Japanese entertainer of the 20th century. Her name was Misora Hibari.

Meanwhile, the Noge street stalls evolved from tinplate shacks into simple structures with awnings. They protruded into streets and hampered redevelopment. They were an eyesore and a reminder of a humiliating past. Authorities negotiated their removal with owners and, when negotiations failed, tore them down anyway. The stalls made their last stand along Noge-hondori. In 1964, the 62 owners agreed to relocate to the then-new Miyakobashi Building beside the Ookagawa River. Noge became a quarter where men slaked their thirst after a day at the office in Tokyo or at the nearby shipyard.

However, with the extension of the Keihin-Tohoku Line to Isogo in 1964, Sakuragicho ceased to be a National Railway terminus — meaning fewer suits popped into Noge pubs before hopping on homeward-bound trams. In March 1980, too, the last ship went down the shipyard’s slipways, so ending an era of dockworkers bending their elbows in Noge.

Yokohama City announced a project to build on the shipyard site a mini-city to be called Minato Mirai — “harbor of the future.” The future did not lie with Noge. The community spruced up. Arches were erected, trees planted, sidewalks repaved, lights replaced. A street-performers festival was launched.

Yet Noge remains Yokohama’s most traditional quarter. Facades show washi paper or reed screens. Willows, hanging lanterns and flower boxes adorn streets. The corpulent porcelain tanuki presides as the tutelary deity. In this age of a lavalike flow of katakana and romaji, Noge establishments hang shingles in kanji. After 5 p.m., middle-aged men descend from Minato Mirai tower aeries and head for the other side of the tracks, where Noge restaurants serve fare for discriminating palates.

Kazu Kageyama, PR officer of the 230-member Noge Restaurant Association, recommends visitors look for an eatery that suits them. “Most have menus in English,” he adds rather proudly. He trumpets, too, the variety of restaurants and stresses that Noge is safe — explaining that “the yakuza are across the river.”

Asked if the recent closure of the Tokyu Toyoko Line between Sakuragicho and Yokohama stations has hurt business, he replies that it’s too early to tell — then sounds a grace note of optimism: “We had 20 years to prepare.”

“Meals are cheap in Noge,” says 78-year-old Hauro Kobayashi, the former Mainichi Shimbun editorial cartoonist and a regular Noge visitor for more than 50 years. “It used to reek of fried whale meat,” he recalls. He remembers, too, seeing a GI there with his arm around a young woman wearing only a slip. “Noge was a frightening place. People would do anything for money.”

This Noge cognoscente leads us to Musashiya. A single-story signless wooden building, the restaurant would be mistaken for a house save for the after-5 line of people outside. The interior seats 20, on tatami, and at the counter and tables on its cement floor. Two matrons serve dressed bean-curd dishes, boiled sweet potato with a dish of salt and julienned onions in soy. No patron gets more than three small bottles of sake. “They don’t want men to spend all their money and return home drunk,” explains Kobayashi. “Their wives wouldn’t let them go back.”

This solicitous business model works. Feeling the press of the queue through the glass door, we down our drinks and leave. We move on to a snack bar called Honoo. Others at the counter nurse their drinks as they pore over racing sheets. A tape serenades us with Beethoven. From Beethoven we segue to Herbie Hancock at Chigusa, Japan’s oldest jazz coffeehouse (est. 1933) and the seed for many other Noge joints offering live or recorded jazz.

Upon first reflection, jazz may seem out of place in a quarter of hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars. But as Kageyama says, “Anything goes — that’s Noge.”

Outside, knots of salaried men reel to the next pub. Karaoke spills into streets, and alley bars emit pleasant fugs of smoke and chatter. Postwar Noge peeps through the gentrification in places and an earlier genius loci is revealed. One such is the Miyakobashi Building, which resembles tiers of the street stalls it replaced. A plan calls for conversion of the defunct Tokyu Toyoko elevated railway into a promenade from Sakuragicho to Tammachi. Kageyama, too, has a dream in his pocket — the creation of a honeycomb of bars and eateries under the old railroad a la Yurakucho in Tokyo — a gastronome’s Yellow Brick Road to the mouth of Noge.