When I was walking to Osanbashi Pier, I noticed that the asphalt road changed to a wooden deck leading me up a slope to a grassy hilltop.

It was only then — as I caught sight of a white passenger ship and shining blue waters — that I realized I was on the roof of the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal. Sea breezes and careening sea gulls truly made me aware I was on the margin of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

The Osanbashi terminal (meaning “big pier”) is these days not only a necessary facility for ship passengers, but it’s also become a symbolic feature of the Yokohama waterfront for locals and visitors alike.

“This is the best place in Yokohama for walking. Whenever I find big ships mooring at this pier, I come here to watch them,” said Motozo Fujimaki, a resident of Yokohama’s central Naka Ward.

“It’s the gateway to foreign countries. I am moved when I think of the 150-year history of the port.”

Back in 1859, the terminal’s origin was in two docks built there when Yokohama port was opened to foreign vessels, said Azuma Shimomura, an official of the private-sector Osanbashi Project that manages the terminal on behalf of the City of Yokohama.

Then, to accommodate bigger foreign ships, the national government constructed a large pier in the port in 1896, which people called Meriken Wharf, Shimomura said, explaining the word “meriken” was derived from “American,” though it came to mean “things and people from various foreign countries.”

From then on, the pier was, for the next 100 years, the city’s central reception and departure point for maritime travelers, including foreign traders, tourists and emigrants.

But after the number of passenger vessels docking at the pier declined steeply in the 1970s, as aircraft took over their role, the city tried to revive the popularity of the port in the early ’90s.

“Japanese shipping companies were building cruise vessels around that time, and the city foresaw that more people would be traveling by ships and decided to construct the new terminal,” Shimomura said.

To ensure the new facility would have an impressive standing in the world, in 1994 and ’95 the city held an international design competition for the terminal’s design. Among 660 submissions from 41 countries, the British-based architectural firm Foreign Office Architects, run by Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi, won The Grand Prize — and the contract.

The resulting building features abundantly curved rooftops, symbolizing rolling waves, and a massive column-free space with external glass walls. After its opening in 2002, the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal (as it is officially known) received the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Worldwide Award in 2004.

Due to its innovative yet functional design, the terminal has seen the port of Yokohama boast the largest number of cruise ships docking in Japan since 2003 — with 120 vessels calling at the port last year alone, according to the city authorities.

“The facility is big enough to accommodate four 30,000-ton ships at the same time,” Shimomura said.

However, he added that it’s not only the facility, but also the city’s people, who have made the port today an outstanding place for foreign visitors, explaining that the citizens are particularly welcoming toward tourists. On April 9, when I visited the pier, a ship named MV Explorer was moored there, having brought 730 students from universities in the United States. They were joining a program named “Semester at Sea,” organized by the University of Virginia.

One of the students, Andrea Nicole Acierno, a senior at Chapman University in California, who said she had walked around Chinatown and the Motomachi shopping street in Yokohama with other students, reported: “Everybody was very accommodating and helped us out a lot.” She added that they were “going to the baseball game at Yokohama Stadium tonight. It seems to be big part of Japanese culture and will be a lot of fun. We can meet many locals there, too.”

After seeing off Acierno at the entrance to Customs, Immigration and Quarantine, I showed my passport and boarded the 24,300-ton MV Explorer.

To my astonishment, I found that the inside of the vessel was actually an American university, with classrooms, a library and a computer room. The ship had departed from the Bahamas in January, then crossed the Atlantic to Africa before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and crossing the Indian Ocean to India en route to Japan, said the Communication Coordinator of the Spring 2009 Voyage of Semester at Sea, Mark Lazaroff.

“During the voyage, we visit 12 countries in total,” Lazaroff said. “We really get the experience of a lot of different cultures.”

While I envied Lazaroff and the students, and enjoyed the atmosphere aboard the ship and the chance to broaden my horizons through talks with them, I soon found I was not alone in this.

Hideaki Muneoka, a security guard at Customs, told me he also enjoys talking with foreign passengers while working at the terminal. In particular, he said he remembers a British couple who had lived in Japan during 1970s and arrived at the terminal by ship a few years ago. They asked Muneoka to help them find a long-lost Japanese friend in Yokohama.

“With my mobile phone I called the number that the couple gave me. The person answered and came here to see the couple. They were hugging and rejoicing to see each other for the first time in 40 years,” he said. “I have seen many memorable reunions such as that here.”

It is also touching to see off cruise ships departing from the terminal. On the afternoon of April 12, Asuka II — at 50,412 tons, and with 12 decks, Japan’s biggest passenger ship — was leaving its home port of Yokohama on a round-the-world cruise. That day, thousands of people, including families of the crew and the 650 passengers, and fans of the ship, gathered at the terminal to bid it a rousing farewell as the magnificent vessel receded into the distance.

Daisuke Nakamura, the Asuka II’s captain, addressed those aboard and on the pier before the ship cast off, saying: “I appreciate that the peace we enjoy today allows us to cruise around the world. I hope that everyone who has come to see us off will share in the excitement of the journey.”

While a marching band played “Around the World in 80 Days,” the passengers lining the rails threw colorful streamers to those crowding the pier.

How many “goodbyes” have there been at the port in the last 150 years? And how much excitement?

Certainly for the thrice reborn city of Yokohama, the journey so far has been exciting — and it promises to be that and more in the years to come, with the pier alone a source of such hope and joy to so many.

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