Chinatown... in Japan?
One great sightseeing spot you may never have thought of visiting in Japan is one of those places that most cities have but people don`t really think of going to unless they`re looking for a good dinner or some food shopping – Chinatown. In Japan there are what are known as the `Three Great Chinatowns` - Yokohama Chinatown, Shinchi Chinatown, and Nankinmachi Chinatown.
Yokohama Chinatown is the closest of the three to Tokyo and definitely worth a look if you happen to be in Kanagawa Prefecture for the day – in fact, this is often listed as the top attraction in Yokohama. It also happens to be the biggest Chinatown in Japan! No-one really lives in this Chinatown anymore, but it is absolutely bustling all day and most nights, and so great for a visit. Yokohama Chinatown`s food is, like probably any Chinatown, the main attraction.
Particularly popular are the `goma dango` (`sesame balls`), small fried balls with a red bean mixture inside. These are cheap and delicious (however the amount of red bean paste inside changes from store to store, if you`ve paid for the cheapest of the cheap, expect to get little more than a marble`s size inside your sesame ball!). Shouronpo is another popular treat for non-vegetarians. These round balls are a little like gyoza but have hot soup as well as meat inside them. Apart from food, the other major attraction in Yokohama Chinatown is the Kanteibyo – a bright red Chinese temple located on one of the back streets, definitely worth a look if you`re in the area. Yokohama is only about 30 minutes from Tokyo by train, and the Chinatown district is easily accessible by another short train ride from Yokohama Station. The trip takes about 35 minutes all up.
The second of the popular Chinatowns of Japan is the Shinchi Chinatown located in Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu (this Chinatown is also sometime just known as `Nagasaki Chinatown`). This is said to be the oldest Chinatown in Japan. Perhaps the most popular meal in this Chinatown is the unique `sara udon` (fried hard noodles topped with a range of delicious vegetables and occasionally seafood, pork, or egg). Naturally while this Chinatown also has its fair share of delicious Chinese (and Japanese) cuisine, it is perhaps most famous for its Lantern Festival. This festival is held from mid-February until early March each year (around the Chinese New Year) and includes a range of events including dancing, music, a parade, and, of course, a whole lot of lanterns! These lanterns are also made in the shapes of people, usually famous historical figures, a bit like in the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. This event is absolutely worth a look if you`re in the area at this time.
The last of the famous Chinatowns of Japan is that of Kobe and is called Nankin-machi. Kobe is about a 3 hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo. Many people who have visited this particular Chinatown as well as the other two famous Chinatowns claim that it is the most colourful of the three. Moon cakes are probably the most famous food in this particular Chinatown, although they are not usually available all year round. This town is primarily located over two main streets bustling with people and packed with great restaurants. Apart from the restaurants and food stalls, things which are worth a look include the few mahjong parlours in the area and also the (locally!) famous Changan Gate. Try out some Mapo Tofu, niku-man (meat bun), cha-han (fried rice) or dim sum while you`re there for something to fill you up!
All three of these Chinatowns are great for a visit- if not for the food, then for the atmosphere. As port towns, these three fantastic sightseeing spots have long histories and are well-established, with a few of the restaurants being passed down in families for generations. While these are great places for sightseeing as well, with numerous Chinese style gates, temples, bridges and statues on offer, the food is absolutely the centerpiece, with delicious and cheap street food on every corner. If you live in the area, Chinatown is also a great place to do your shopping, due to the lower food prices and great variety available. If you`re only passing through, try to drop in during the Chinese New Year, as all three of these Chinatowns have huge and colourful festivals with lion dancing and traditional music. If you have a little more time, try to walk around the back streets a little bit to explore a few interesting stores – i.e. Chinese medicine stores, popular k-pop stores (not unheard of in Chinatown) or even Nepalese stores selling incense and happy pants. Chinatown, despite the name, really encompasses a range of cultures and therefore makes for a culturally fascinating and delicious experience for all visitors.
Next time you`re in one of these three areas try out something you never thought of doing and visit a Chinatown in Japan!