Sunday, 30 October 2022

Visiting Yokohama (2): Red Shoes and Red Flags in Chinatown

This week temperatures have suddenly plummeted to something like mid-November to early December levels and the pleasant autumn weather I wrote about in the last post has turned unseasonably chilly, though the skies remain royally blue. The leaves too are beginning to change colour, what the Japanese call kōyō (紅葉). In Yokohama Chinatown - which I mention at the end of this post - Chinese lanterns are being set up shaped like dragons and mystical phoenix-like "fenghuang" birds to celebrate the Chinese new year from Tuesday through to February (see here). 2022 is most definitely edging towards its end.

View of Yokohama Bay from Yamashita Park, with Osanbashi Hall on the right and the sail-shaped Intercontinental Yokohama Grand Hotel in the background, just beyond the famous red-brick warehouses (covered in the previous post)

One of the things I like about living in abroad is the way it fosters a sense of curiosity about your surroundings, an inquisitiveness about things around you that often disappears in your home country when you grow up. Interestingly, curiosity is the foundation of mindfulness: observing, being non-judgemental, and, most importantly, slowing down. Perhaps living in a foreign country is good for your mental health?!? A good example of Japan piquing my curiosity came during my recent trip to Yokohama when, walking towards Yamashita Park, I noticed images of red shoes on the pavement slabs. Arriving at the park, I then discovered a statue called "The Girl with Red Shoes". What on earth was this all about?

The base of the statue reads "A Little Girl with Red Shoes on" (赤い靴はいてた女の子) and the shoes themselves shine after being rubbed (for luck?) by countless numbers of passers-by. Next to the statue are the words to a children's nursery rhyme, set in the Port of Yokohama, which it says was first performed in 1921:

A Young Girl Wearing Red Shoes was taken away by a foreigner (ijin=異人)

She rode on a ship from Yokohama Port, taken away by the foreigner

I suppose her eyes have now turned blue living in that foreigner's country

Every time I see red shoes, I think of her; everytime I encounter (au=逢う)a foreigner, I think of her

This is all rather disturbing as it seems to depict a young girl being kidnapped by a foreigner! The word ijin, literally "different person", was used up to the end of the Meiji Period to describe those from outside Japan. Further digging reveals it may have been based on a (partially) true story, the story of a girl, Kimi, whose parents asked an American missionary to adopt her and take her to America but who actually died of tuberculosis in an orphanage before she could go. However, others argue that most of the story is a fabrication and that the poem/song was in fact a metaphor for the demise of socialism in Japan (see here for a rather lengthy discussion). This got me thinking about the symbolism of red shoes: as a child of the 80's my first thought was of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" which uses red shoes as a symbol of western civilization and colonial control. Indeed, Louis XIV was said to have used fashion - the wearing of red heels - as a form of social control, the colour representing absolute power. Then again there is Hans Christian Andersen's 1845 fairytale "The Red Shoes" about temptation. But I digress. The point is that small observations can trigger an exciting chain of thought!

This post was supposed to be about Yokohama's Chinatown, the 160-year-old 500㎡ district crowded with some 250 Chinese restaurants and shops, including second-hand clothes shops and kitchen stores, but it looks like I've run out of time and space! Needless to say, it's definitely somewhere you should visit, if only for the incredible food; right now, Taiwanese fried chicken and Beijing-style candied strawberries seem to be the big thing. As I mentioned last time, this year China and Japan are celebrating 50 years since the start of diplomatic relations in 1972 and given the poor state of relations it was encouraging to see both Japanese and Chinese flags being waved together during the recent October 1st celebrations to mark the National Day of China. Check out the lion and dragon dances in the video below and, as always, don't forget to add a COMMENT if anything in this month's blog has piqued your interest!

Sunday, 2 October 2022

Visiting Yokohama (1) : Autumn in Japan's Most Cosmopolitan Port City

Autumn approaches and temperatures vary wildly here in Japan. A couple of weeks ago a cool front made things decidedly chilly, but this weekend has been a perfect 29℃, with a nice autumn breeze and none of the horrible summer humidity. This unseasonal heat doesn't match the calendar: today (October 1st) is traditionally called koromo-gae, the day for changing your wardrobe from summer to winter clothing! Typhoons have hit almost weekly recently, bringing torrential rains and much damage down south. It is the season of crickets (suzumushi) chirping quietly (replacing the intense buzz of the summer cicadas) and also the period when the stunning Red Spider Lily (higanbana) blooms briefly. The change in the season is also reflected in the food available - Japanese are much more conscious about seasonal foods than the British - and the supermarket is full of autumn staples: matsutake mushrooms, chestnuts (kuri), Pacific saury (sanma =秋刀魚 - the fish name itself contains the kanji for autumn!), sweet potato, pumpkin, and persimmons (kaki), the "divine fruit" of autumn. 

In the university at least, autumn is also the season of non-stop work, known evocatively as jitensha-sōgyō (自転車操業), literally "bicycle operations" based on the analogy that if one stops pedaling (working) even for a minute you'll fall off! But on the other hand, it is a beautiful season to be out and about and a little rest is definitely needed so at the risk of falling irrevocably behind on the work I took a short one-night break in Yokohama. Yokohama is Japan's second largest city - bigger than Osaka - and is found just south of Tokyo, on Tokyo Bay. The cosmopolitan port city is a tourist mecca, an economic, cultural, and high-tech industrial hub famous for its Chinatown, museums, (amusement) parks, and shopping. The most visible landmark is undoubtedly the Cosmo Clock 21 100m high Ferris wheel in Yokohama Cosmoworld which even boasts two transparent "see-through" gondolas (and a view of Mount Fuji if you're lucky!). The night-time illuminations are not to be missed!

We decided to try out the Intercontinental Yokohama Grand, located on a pier and famous for its spectacular views over the bay. The hotel itself is shaped like a sleek yacht under sail (or a segment of a tangerine?) and is a short walk from Minato Mirai Station. The cosmopolitan feel and sense of history are everywhere, no surprise given that Yokohama was the first gateway to trade with the west: Commodore Perry landed here, with a fleet of warships, in 1854 to present US demands for a trade agreement, persuading the Japanese government to end its national seclusion policy and sign what were known as the "unequal treaties". Still wanting to limit contact between Japanese and Western "barbarians", the new port was built near the tiny isolated then-village of Yokohama. The original trading port was a two-pier wharf known as Zō-no-hana (elephant's trunk), named so because of its shape, and the wharf remains to this day. Later, state-of-the-art warehouses built from red brick sprang up, the red-brick (hardly ever used to construct houses in Japan) a symbol of the international nature of Yokohama. Red brick is synonymous with the "foreign"; indeed, I remember visiting an elementary school in rural Japan once and the first question I was asked was whether I lived in a red-brick house!

One of the famous red-brick warehouses (赤レンガ倉庫) with the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the 2nd tallest building in Japan, visible in the background

There's so much more to write about Yokohama, so I'm going to leave it here for now and continue next time. In particular, I'm going to focus on Chinatown, perfect timing give the two countries are now celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations! In the meantime, why not leave a COMMENT - which would you prefer, a mountain view (Mount Fuji) or a sea view (Tokyo Bay)?