It’s early December and the halls of the Western-style houses of Yamate or “The Bluff” — the former gaikokujin kyoryūchi (foreign settlement) in Yokohama — have been well and truly decked. Giving crowds of curious Japanese an inkling as to what Christmas looks like in a Western setting, the splendor of these one-time residences of diplomats from far-off lands, oyatoi gaikokujin (foreigners employed to help modernize late 19th-century Japan) and wealthy traders seems obscured by the seasonal adornments.

The decorations — selected to represent Christmas traditions of different countries — may not truly be authentic, but drawing crowds to these buildings is important for the city’s heritage. Couples, families, friends, young and old, flock to admire the pine-fresh Christmassy visuals, obtain some top-notch selfies and generally indulge in a soup of light Occidentalism.

Illuminations, Polish crockery, examples of cuisine from Canada: it’s all here, bringing visitors to a neighborhood of the city that, most other times of year, isn’t exactly bustling with tourists. Surprising — because this, in many ways, is the birthplace of modern Japan.

Yokohama has humble beginnings. It started out, like all good entrepots do, as a fishing village (much like Singapore and Hong Kong). After the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the U.S. and Japan was signed in 1858 — naming “Kanagawa” (Yokohama) as one of several ports opened to foreign trade that year — it grew significantly. By 1861, it was home to approximately 12,000 Japanese, alongside 54 British, 38 Americans, 20 Dutch and 14 French, as well as Chinese who gradually settled today’s Chukagai (Chinatown) area; neighboring Motomachi, literally meaning “original town,” is the point from which Yokohama expanded outwards.

Deck the halls: A mother and daughter celebrate Christmas early inside the grand Berwick Hall. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Deck the halls: A mother and daughter celebrate Christmas early inside the grand Berwick Hall. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Bakumatsu (1853-67) and early Meiji period (1868-1912) contact between enterprising Westerners, probably used to throwing their weight around in their respective colonies, and Japanese locals, definitely unaccustomed to enterprising Westerners, was somewhat fraught. Cultural misunderstandings, murders, arson of Western buildings — as well as the undesirable conditions in the French and British temporary tented barracks, which occupied present-day Harbor View Park — made the corral of Westerners into a foreign settlement a necessity.

Favored for its low humidity (and great views, presumably), the hilly Yamate district, south of the port of Yokohama, saw the construction of foreign houses, schools and churches from 1867. By this time, the foreign population had increased: 193 British; 51 American; 19 Dutch; 16 French; as well as 19 German, Swiss and Portuguese.

In 1899, the Treaty Revision ended unequal terms between Japan and the West, spelling the end of things like extraterritoriality and the gaikokujin kyoryūchi system. Yamate Foreign Settlement simply became Yamatecho and a part of newly formed city of Yokohama.

Though the 1923 Kanto Earthquake devastated many Western buildings in Yokohama — seeing a drastic decline of foreign residents (7,650 pre-quake to 2,156 the following year) — some Yamate structures survived and many were built anew. Some weren’t, like the McGowan House (Yamate No. 80): a cautionary tale of brick buildings in a land of earthquakes left in-situ overlooking Motomachi Park, behind the better preserved and genuinely beautiful Berwick Hall.

Looks can be deceiving: Is this an English village? No, it's Christ Church in Yamate. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Looks can be deceiving: Is this an English village? No, it’s Christ Church in Yamate. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Today Yamate is one of “Japan’s 100 Cityscapes” (as selected by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism) and, excluding central Tokyo, boasts the second highest land price in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. There are the unobstructed Fuji views, proximity to public transport and the upscale, historic Motomachi shōtengai (shopping street); most of all, you wonder if — despite the sprawling and spooky Foreigner’s Cemetery — the novelty of living with the ghosts of the past and their exotic edificial hangovers, is part of what makes Yamate the desirable neighborhood it is today.

One of the oldest buildings still in existence in The Bluff is Yamate Museum. Originally built just south of Yamatecho in 1909 as an 18-room mansion for dairy farmer Nakeichi Nakazawa, a two-floor section of the house now lives out an archival existence. Interesting not only because it is the only wooden, Western-style building that survived the Kanto quake, but also because it was built by a Japanese carpenter, this conflation of worlds today houses historic artefacts, cartoons from satirical 19th-century comic-journal Japan Punch and other Western curios, and a steep, narrow staircase that creaks with awesome age.

Moved to its current site in 1977, the museum shares a space with Yamate Jubankan, constructed in 1967 to celebrate the centennial of the Meiji Restoration. Hosting a cafe on its first floor and a fancy French restaurant on the second, in summer the garden is open for barbecue and beer on a backdrop of screaming cicadas, stifling heat and the aroma of mosquito coils.

A far cry from Toto: An elegant tiled bathroom at Berwick Hall. | RUSSELL THOMAS
A far cry from Toto: An elegant tiled bathroom at Berwick Hall. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Sauntering through The Bluff in the height of Japan’s sweltering summers certainly brings up the question of how early Westerners dealt with the country’s climate, even with the alleged “low humidity” of the area. One step into the solidity of the Former British Consular Residence (1937), designed by the Shanghai arm of the British Office of Works, with its high ceilings and unnecessary sun porch, conjures images of afternoon tea and languishing in the heat. Today it serves as a museum, meeting space, puts on concerts in its first floor hall and, like all historic seiyōkan (Western-style mansions) open to the public in the area, it’s free to enter.

Fittingly, next door is the English Rose Garden, best from April to June and again during October and November. This is a good spot to devour a snack from popular purveyor of baked goods, Uchiki Pan. Beginning life as Yokohama Bakery in 1862 under Englishman Robert Clarke — the “ancestor” of shokupan (the everyday Japanese loaf) according to the bakery’s website — it was taken over by apprentice Hikotaro Uchiki in 1888, who put his name to the store 11 years later. Nostalgic treats such as satsuma anpan (sweet potato encased in sweet bread) and piroshiki (a Russian-inspired savory doughnut filled with seasoned meat and cellophane noodles) point back to the heady days of early trade.

Merging into the Rose Garden is Harbor View Park, complete with a panorama of the highrises and jumble of boats and bridges that is today’s Yokohama. With The Bluff poised as the primordial pool of many firsts for Japan — the country’s first tennis court (1878, Yamate Park), first European-style horserace (1862 at “Swamp Ground,” later Negishi Racecourse), even the first ice-making company (Japan Ice Company, 1879) — the sight of 1980s development Minato Mirai 21 in the hazy distance is a jolting leap into the future.

But it’s easy to slip back into the past at Berwick Hall, the largest and grandest seiyōkan. Designed by American architect Jay Hill Morgan (1868-1937) and built in 1930 for British trader B. R. Berwick, the timeworn black-and-white tiles, elegant palm room, Instagrammable bathrooms and general Art Deco-flavored design details make shuffling around in the gripless slippers provided (no shoes inside) feel a far cry from the formality that once existed here.

Just like the Alps back home: Mount Fuji paints an iconic backdrop for the Italian Garden. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Just like the Alps back home: Mount Fuji paints an iconic backdrop for the Italian Garden. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Also designed by Morgan is Bluff No. 111 (1926), a Spanish Colonial Revival style building with generous wood paneling that smells comfortingly like an old church. Cosier than some of the other Bluff properties, a banistered corridor on the second floor overlooks the first, atrium-style, feeling positively homely; more so than the early apartment block that is Bluff No. 234 (1927), which, though coolly angular and symmetrical from without, smells clinical and lacks furniture within. Nearby, the 1931 Morgan-designed Christ Church is possibly the strangest of the bunch for just how familiar the Norman-style architecture feels to me, yet how seemingly never-open to the public it is — unlike Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

Things quiet down as I round up my trip to Yamate at the manicured Italian Garden; shapes of stragglers appear in the warm windows of Bluff No. 18 across the way, Christmas card-style. The day is fading and the seasonal illuminations now spotlight the tower of the Victorian American “Home of a Diplomat” (1910) like something from a theme park. Yokohama Stadium flares incandescent down below. But to the west — as countless diplomats, traders, their families and generations of Japanese before them would have seen, just as I am — the totem of Mount Fuji stamps a woodblock sunset.

To reach Yamate from Shibuya, take the Tokyu Toyoko line bound for Motomachi-Chukagai (35 minutes on the F Liner Limited Express, ¥500). Alight at Motomachi-Chukagai and leave the station via Exit 6. “Christmas Around the World 2019” takes place Dec. 1- 25 at seven Bluff properties, open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (7:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Dec. 22-24); admission free. For more information, visit bit.ly/yokoyamate.

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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