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Three Major Chinatowns in Japan

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© Yasufumi Nishi, JNTO

Yokohama Chukagai is the biggest Chinatown in Japan. Close to Tokyo and offering countless choices of eateries, it’s a popular tourist destination.

Although Japanese people celebrate the New Year on January 1, there are places in Japan that get into a celebratory mood during the Lunar New Year period in February: Yokohama Chukagai in Kanagawa Prefecture, Kobe Nankin-machi in Hyogo Prefecture, and Nagasaki Shinchi in Nagasaki Prefecture. These three major Chinatowns all have unique histories and features.

With over 600 restaurants and shops, Yokohama Chukagai is the largest Chinatown in Japan––and in Asia. It began about 150 years ago, right after the Japanese government officially opened the port of Yokohama to foreign countries in 1859, abandoning its policy of national isolation. Chinese immigrants played an important role in introducing foreign products and concepts to Japan and developed their own culture at the dawn of Japan’s modernization. They invented new, Japanese-style versions of Chinese cuisine, the best example of which is ramen. There are various types of Chinese restaurants in Yokohama Chukagai—everything from upscale to more budget-friendly eateries, teahouses, and places with yummy Chinese snacks, such as roasted chestnuts, buns and dumplings. Just by wandering through the streets, visitors can witness how Japan has incorporated Chinese culture in its own way.

Like Yokohama Chukagai, Kobe Nankin-machi also began at the end of Japan’s period of national isolation. Kobe’s Chinatown is smaller than its Yokohama counterpart, but unlike Yokohama Chukagai, which is also a residential area, Kobe Nankin-machi is purely a commercial district. Today, there are 100 restaurants and shops, and its compact Chinatown is a magnet for tourists as well as local shoppers. It’s also known as the home of butaman (Japanese-style pork buns).

Nagasaki Shinchi has a slightly different origin. Even during the national isolation of the Edo period, the port city of Nagasaki was open to trade with China and the Netherlands. Accordingly, a number of Chinese, mainly from Fujian Province, settled throughout the city as early as the seventeenth century. Later, a Chinatown was built on Nagasaki’s hillside, but after a huge fire in 1698 destroyed Chinese importers’ warehouses, they rebuilt their warehouses atop landfill on the waterfront. The current Chinatown is called Shinchi, meaning “new land.” Since it has more than 300 years of Chinese settlement as well as an influx of Western cultures, Nagasaki has developed a unique culture blending European and Pan-Asian influences with Japanese traditions.

All three Chinatowns host Lunar New Year events, and this is the most festive time of the year to visit, but they all offer a lot to experience, savor, and see even on an ordinary day.

 

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© Kobe Convention & Visitors Association, JNTO 

Although it’s small in area compared to Yokohama Chukagai, Kobe Nankin-machi has a gorgeous Lunar New Year festival, attracting many visitors.

 

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© Yasufumi Nishi, JNTO

With more than 300 years of Chinese settlement, Nagasaki was a gate city that introduced many foreign cultures to Japan.

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 Specialty Foods in the 3 Chinatowns

Japanese-Chinese Cuisine in Yokohama Chukagai
Yokohama Chukagai offers many elegant, upscale Chinese dining experiences. The oldest restaurant in Yokohama Chukagai is Heichinrou (www.heichin.com/en), a Cantonese restaurant established in 1884. Another popular Cantonese restaurant is Manchinro (www.manchinro.com). Jukei Hanten (www.jukeihanten.com) is a Szechuan restaurant, and Kaseiro (www.kaseiro.com) serves Pekinese cuisine. If you would like a more casual experience, you can always enjoy browsing the streets while munching take-out snacks from storefront vendors.

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Butaman in Kobe Nankin-machi
A notable gourmet item in Kobe’s Chinatown is butaman, Japanese-style steamed pork buns. The founder of Roushouki (www.roushouki.com), an immigrant from Zhejiang Province, created butaman in 1915 to please the Japanese palate. The restaurant reportedly sells 13,000 pieces per day. Today, there are other types of butaman, not only in Kobe but also throughout Japan, but most of them are called nikuman.

Champon in Nagasaki Shinchi
Because of its 300 year relationship with China, Nagasaki offers unique Chinese-Japanese fusion dishes. The most famous is champon, a noodle soup with an abundance of toppings such as pork, bamboo shoots, and local seafood, including oysters, squid, and shrimp. Shikairou (www.shikairou.com), established in 1899, began serving the prototype of what evolved into champon. The restaurant is still located in Nagasaki and continues to serve the original Nagasaki champon.

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