By Yoshihisa Watanabe / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterYOKOHAMA — It’s hard to know exactly where I am, even as I use the map feature on my smartphone. Buildings along the street cut off my view, and I’m at a loss as to my location.
“That’s Yokohama,” I think as I keep walking forward. Eventually, I see a building that really deserves the term “grandiose.” Once the main building of the headquarters of the Yokohama Specie Bank, it’s now used as the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History.
Although it’s only a three-story building, the neo-baroque stone-walled structure creates a tranquil atmosphere completely different from urban clamor.
The Yokohama Specie Bank specialized in foreign trade settlements and exchange services. Now designated as a national important cultural property, the main building of the bank’s headquarters was completed in 1904, one of Yokohama’s best examples of modern architecture in the Meiji era (1868-1912).
Yorinaka Tsumaki, who designed the building, was a leading Japanese architect of the Meiji era, along with Kingo Tatsuno, who designed the Tokyo Station building.
Tsumaki was born to a family of hatamoto direct retainers of the Tokugawa shogunate in the last years of the Edo period (1603-1867). His parents died when he was a small child, and after the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate ended with the Meiji Restoration, Tsumaki traveled to the United States at the age of 17 to test his capabilities.
At that time, Tsumaki became acquainted with Nagatane Soma, who would become president of the Yokohama Specie Bank. Later, Tsumaki received a request to design the main building of the bank’s headquarters.
Pillars and beams decorated with sculptures give the exterior of the building a dignified aura.
The iconic dome atop the roof was destroyed by fire during the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and reproduced in 1967 during construction work to convert the building into the museum.
The dome’s base is octagonal with alternating lines of two different lengths, 5.5 meters and 4.5 meters. The fine positioning makes the 19-meter-high dome look sharp and three-dimensional from any direction.
“We promote it with the nickname ‘The Ace Dome.’ The name has caught on to a certain degree,” said Yuichi Tanji, 46, chief curator of the museum. The nickname stems from the fact that its “rivals” are three tower-shaped structures in Yokohama designated as the King, the Queen and the Jack.
The King refers to the main building of the Kanagawa prefectural government office, the Queen is the Yokohama Customs headquarters building, and the Jack is the 36-meter-high clock tower of the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall. Each tower has an original shape. The nicknames, taken from playing cards, are believed to have been first used by foreign sailors who came to Yokohama Port in the early years of the Showa era (1926-1989).
A 10-minute walk from the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History leads you to the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall. The building was completed in 1917 and the exterior is composed of red bricks and granite. The design follows the style of Tatsuno, who was a rival of Tsumaki.
The memorial hall was constructed mainly with donations from citizens to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yokohama Port’s opening. It is still supported by Yokohama citizens, and about 100 volunteers called Jack supporters work there as guides for visitors.
I was shown around by Koji Tanaka, an experienced volunteer guide. He began by reviewing the history of Yokohama before it opened as a port in the last years of the Edo period. He sometimes adds anecdotes. For example, in front of a stained glass window in a VIP staircase that depicts the arrival of a ship called the Powhatan in the U.S. fleet led by Matthew Perry, Tanaka said, “I heard that the part of the window showing the American flag was concealed during World War II.”
This year marked the 160th anniversary of the opening of Yokohama Port. It’s thrilling to hear about events from the city’s history.
I live in Tokyo, so Yokohama felt too close to visit. I’d been to the city’s Chinatown, but I walked around Yokohama for the first time to write this article.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised by how many Western-style buildings, dating from the Meiji era to the early Showa era, there still are. A single day is not enough for touring the modern architecture in Yokohama. I want to visit the city again with more time.
Tsumaki once served as an engineer for the Finance Ministry, so he interacted with Yokohama Customs. The Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse in the Shinko Pier area, which is regarded as a birthplace of modern Japanese ports, was designed by Tsumaki.
The two warehouses that remain today were completed in 1911 and 1913, featuring the latest technologies of the day, such as sprinklers and cargo elevators. The warehouse complex is now used as a cultural and commercial facility where a wide variety of seasonal events are held.
The Kiyoken Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, a restaurant on the first floor of warehouse No. 2, serves a special dish named Aka Renga Shumai, Chinese dumplings that combine red rice, crab meat and paprika. A set of four dumplings costs ¥500.
Restaurant manager Nobuyuki Baba, 53, said, “Customers can enjoy a wide variety of tastes because we use various ingredients.”
A type of noodle named sanma-men that was created in Yokohama is also popular at the restaurant. A set of a bowl of sanma-men and two shumai dumplings is ¥930.
Souvenir shops in the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse offer excellent goods that are hard to find elsewhere. Yokohama Kasutera cake sold at the Aka Renga Depot on the first floor of warehouse No. 1 is the same size as a real brick, and costs ¥1,404. The shop also sells Yokohama Chocolate with brick patterns for ¥626.
Cookies called Yokohama Cookie Akai Kutsu are named after a nursery rhyme titled “Akai Kutsu” (red shoes), written by the poet Ujo Noguchi. A pack of cookies costs ¥702.
Yokohama Chocolate Akai Kutsu has a retro feel, and costs ¥280 for one pack.
Access: It takes about 30 minutes by train from Tokyo Station to Yokohama Station on the JR Tokaido Line. Change to the Negishi Line and ride three minutes to Sakuragicho Station. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the station to the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History.