Chinese New Year at Yokohama Chinatown, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture 横浜中華街の春節 横浜 神奈川県
Right after a few major ports were opened to foreigners in 1859, towards the very end of the Edo Period, Chinese merchants and Chinese workers flocked to Yokohama, the newly opened port closest to Edo, today's Tokyo.
Business opportunities were abundant for the Chinese merchants. The Edo authorities made sure to concentrate them in one area at first but it soon turned out that the Chinese immigrants preferred to live within their own community anyway. There, they could keep their ancient traditions alive while at the same time, they went on trading with their Japanese business partners.
Today, Yokohama Chinatown is a thriving area densely packed with Chinese restaurants and shopping outlets. At first glance, the area looks thoroughly commercialized. Which it is, of course, but commercialized on Chinese terms and with ancient Chinese traditions vibrantly living on.
Chinese New Year Festival in Yokohama Chinatown
One of the best times in the year to witness the ancient Chinese traditions in Yokohama is Chinese New Year.
The Chinese calendar is a lunar calendar. That means that the New Year starts at some point in February, the exact date is different every year.
The celebration period is rather long. It starts with Chinese New Year's Eve which is largely a family affair with people gathering at home over a sumptuous meal though there are events at the temples.
Then there are dragon dances starting with but not limited to the first day of the New Year, various parades, stage performances and multiple other events taking place over almost two weeks. During that period, Chinatown is decorated with many colorful lanterns celebrating the New Year.
The First Day of Chinese New Year
The perhaps best day to experience the true spirit of the Chinese New Year in Yokohama is the first day of the New Year.
Kwan Tai Temple is the spiritual center of the area. It was named after Kwan Tai (aka Guan Yu), a legendary Chinese general fighting his battles in the years around 200 A.D. Kwan Tai is revered as an indigenous Chinese deity both in Taoism and in Buddhism.
Kwan Tai Temple is clearly a Taoist temple, a Miao. On New Year's Day, visiting local Chinese as well as Chinese tourists first hit a very Chinese-sounding gong before heading over to the counter selling large incense sticks and big packs of joss paper.
Joss paper (also knowns as gold paper or sometimes as ghost money) consists of yellow paper sheets imprinted with various temple seals. Taoist temples have their own furnaces in which to burn them - and thus to offer money to ensure the well-being of one's ancestors. Many people line up at the two furnaces on the premises of Kwan Tai Temple.
Then it's on to light the incense sticks. Since they are so big, cigarette lighters are unlikely to do the job. Two ladies operate special burners, people turn to them to get their incense going. The incense sticks are then placed inside receptacles just outside the temple interior.
Inside the temple are three prayer areas. A large array of tropical fruits is offered to the deities right behind the central one - and that's the place to quietly convey the most important of the prayers.
Foreign visitors are welcome at the ceremonies. What they witness is not a show put up in any way, it is true Chinese spiritualism. The Chinese burning the joss paper, offering incense and praying are serious about what they are doing.
Dragon & Lion Dances
The same can be said about the famous dragon and lion dances commencing from about 3.30 pm and lasting until about 8 pm on New Year's Day. Tourists taking their photos are welcome but the ceremonies would take place the same way even without cameras around.
Five lion dancing teams make their way through Yokohama Chinatown in the afternoon and evening. They are all volunteers from the Chinese martial arts club of the local high school.
Just stroll through Chinatown and you will encounter them. They make a lot of noise and can't be missed. The different dancing teams operate dragons of various colors and designs. Lions dances are usually performed by two dancers, whereas dragon dances need multiple performers.
Two young men or boys will do the lion dance at any given time, They take up the dragon robe, they gyrate outside the restaurant or shop they perform for, one guy stands on the shoulders of the other while the dragon reaches high and touches the shop's name displayed above the door. They will then enter the business and do their dance in front of the owner and the customers.
More dancing and gyrating in dragon costume will follow once the colorful dragon has slowly moved out of the door again.
The dragon dancers move in teams. While only two young guys do the dancing at a time, plenty more young folks the same age, dressed in the same trademark red martial arts school garb, provide security, blocking off the section of the street before the respective building with large poles and ropes. Among the groups, young guys take turns with the dancing. Police officers and martial arts teachers make sure that the onlookers follow the rules.
With the dragon dancers come the musicians, if you want to call them that. Noise is a central element in the celebrations. The more noise, the better the chances to chase away the evil spirits. Martial arts school students use drums and especially cymbals to make the most noise possible. It's all rhythmic, though, and thus a sort of music. The real noise component coming in is from the Chinese fire crackers.
Chinese fire crackers are fireworks only intended to make noise. They come in chains and once lit, they will light each other in a chain reaction.
Traditionally, chains of Chinese fire crackers were hung from the buildings and once lit, they noisily burned all their way up to the roof.
That practice has in recent years been prohibited in many large Chinese cities and international Chinatowns - it's a serious fire hazard after all.
In Yokohama, you can still hear the sound of the crackers, though they need to be burned inside a fire-proof cage. In fact, the metal cage amplifies their sound.
Meanwhile, business is going strong in Chinatown. Peking ducks and plenty of other dishes are served all day long. All shops are open and waiting for customers. As holy as the celebrations are, they don't mean that business will take a rest.
Getting to Yokohama China Town
The nearest stations to Yokohama's China Town are Motomachi-Chukagai Station on the Minato Mirai Line and Ishikawacho Station on the JR Negishi Line, both less than 10 minutes' ride from Yokohama Station.
The 4-star Rose Hotel is very convenient for Yokohama China Town and close to Motomachi-Chukagai Subway Station.
The English-language Yokohama Tourism website announces the details of the annual Chinese New Year’s celebrations in Yokohama Chinatown yokohamajapan.com/events