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Yokohama, your first port of call in Japan


By Ron Smith


The Nippon Maru sail training ship at the Port Museum in Yokohama.
The Nippon Maru sail training ship at the Port Museum in Yokohama.

Yokohama is close to Tokyo, and is a natural safe haven of a port. When the Pacific waves are pounding the shore 10 metres high, only 10cm ripples are in the vast sheltered inlet.

It is the most important port in Japan. When the Emperor moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, it needed a port, and Yokohama is only 20 minutes away by train.

The Americans, with their usual aggression, sent a fleet of warships in 1854 and told the Japanese that they would open up their country to international trade or they would bombard them into doing so – fortunately the Japanese were thinking the same way, and Yokohama has never looked back.

As part of the process of industrialising the country, several foreign experts were brought in, many from Scotland, including Richard Henry Brunton, from Muchalls, Aberdeen. He did great things building lighthouses and setting up the whole lighthouse service, and was then asked to develop Yokohama.

He developed the port and the city, by installing street lighting, paved roads, sewage and water systems. There is a statue to him in the city in recognition of his great contribution.

The bust of John Henry Brunton, the Aberdonian engineer who did so much for Yokohama.
The bust of John Henry Brunton, the Aberdonian engineer who did so much for Yokohama.

I flew from Aberdeen via Amsterdam with KLM to Osaka, and took the wonderful bullet train to Yokohama, and then a local train a few stops to the New Grand Hotel. The old part of the hotel is a national monument, full of “the good old days” charm, while alongside is the modern tower block.

In front of it is the Yamashita Park and the sea. This attractive park was created in 1923 when the great Kanto earthquake destroyed the city, so the rubble was bulldozed into this long stretch of park on the shore. As well as its rose gardens and flower beds, it has a cute statue of a little girl with red shoes – a local children’s song, and an impressive statue of a woman with a water jug on her shoulder, the Spirit of Water, presented to the city by San Diego, USA.

Moored here is a classic ship, the Hikawa Maru. She was launched in 1930 for the NYK line, for the Japan to Seattle route, built to the latest style and comfort. In World War II she was converted to a hospital ship, and survived being mined three times.

In 1953 she was refitted and continued the trans-Pacific sailings until 1961 when she was moored here at her home port and you can visit the ship and see the comfort and style. The NYK shipping line museum, in the ground floor of its majestic building, is also well worth a visit.

A view of the port area from the 69th floor of the Sky Tower, with the crescent of the Port Museum and the Nippon Maru sail training ship.
A view of the port area from the 69th floor of the Sky Tower, with the crescent of the Port Museum and the Nippon Maru sail training ship.

Ships are always coming and going, including water taxis. A lovely old ferry, now a lunch cruise, operates from the architecturally striking cruise ship terminal (with a grass covered roof and park) and at tea time every day you can watch the cruise ships depart.

Incidentally, the USA took over great areas of Japan after the war and have slowly given parts back, but still control a chunk of the harbour where their grey warships can be seen.

A great view of the whole area can be seen from the 69th floor of the Sky Tower. The ultra-high-speed lift fairly makes your ears pop as you zoom up to the viewing gallery.

The Sankeien Gardens are typically Japanese, so particularly and precisely laid out, with a small lake, that you walk into peace and tranquillity. The man who built it in 1868 had 17 historic houses brought from different parts of Japan and integrated them into the gardens, including the iconic tea houses. It covers 175,000 square metres.

The opposite extreme of the peaceful gardens is the large shopping centres – shopping is a big thing here! If this makes you thirsty, there is a craft beer map to take you to the many small breweries, and there is also the big Kirin brewery, whose beer is found all over Japan.

The Spirit of Water statue on the waterfront, Yamashita Park.
The Spirit of Water statue on the waterfront, Yamashita Park.

There are dozens of museums, covering all sorts of things – something for everyone. A little out of the centre is the Streetcar museum. This has representatives of the city’s trams (replaced by metro trains now) and should really be called a public transport museum.

There are large-scale models of railway engines from the beginning of railways right up to date, steam and electric. Children love it, with lots of interactive displays, and the inevitable vending machines. Vending machines and spotless public toilets are every few hundred metres!

The Hara model railway museum is also very popular, with one of the world’s largest “O” gauge layouts. The Japanese love their noodles, and there is even a Pot Noodle museum!

I had intended to use Yokohama as a base to visit Tokyo, but never did, as there is so much to see and enjoy here. A really great place for a holiday.

The Hikawa Maru ship, moored at the Yamashita Park.
The Hikawa Maru ship, moored at the Yamashita Park.

Need to know

KLM flies daily from Aberdeen and Inverness via Amsterdam to Tokyo and Osaka. See www.klm.com

The hotel in Yokohama where I stayed is superbly situated and top quality. See www.hotel-newgrand.co.jp

For more information about Yokohama see www.yokohamajapan.com which includes advice about transport, visitor cards etc. For Japan more generally, the tourist office in London is very helpful – www.seejapan.co.uk



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