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Sharing Memories of a Yokohama Childhood After Making the Journey Home Decades Later


A huge exposition--YES '89 (Yokohama Exotic Showcase)--opened in early spring and attracted tens of thousands of tourists by the time it closed in October. Now the expo area not far from the waterfront is being converted into a futuristic city center. The Yokohama City Museum, Japan's second-largest, is already built on the site, and by the end of the decade, if all goes according to schedule, shopping centers, hotels and parks will be completed.

One of the exposition's most popular attractions, the world's biggest Ferris wheel, remains on the site. It is 100 meters in diameter and also serves as a clock. Its 15-minute ride is timed to the millisecond, and as the wheel moves higher and higher, the panoramic view widens to include various parts of the city, the highly industrialized harbor and a new Bay Bridge.

The exposition served as a jolting contrast to my childhood memories of Yokohama. I remember riding the streetcar through town to Yokohama Station and seeing miles and miles of bombed-out ruins. The homeless lived along its streets in makeshift shacks or took refuge at night in one of many dilapidated houseboats on the canal; they gathered around trash bins to fight for partially eaten cans of food. Orphaned children begged on the streets; pan-pan girls (prostitutes) plied their trade near the American soldiers' compounds.

During the '50s and early '60s Yokohama had one of the largest American populations in Japan. Under American military occupation from 1945 to 1952, Japan was a logical place from which to develop the defense of the Korean War. Not far from where we lived along the beach at Honmoku were rows and rows of pink, blue and yellow houses, nothing fancy by American standards but luxurious in postwar Japan.

The compounds were surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire; inside were tennis courts, wide paved roads, the Bill Chickering movie theater, the PX, a bowling alley. Off limits to most Japanese, the compounds housed American military personnel and their dependents.

All of it was razed almost a decade ago. In its place is a parking lot, a sparkling shopping center called Mycal Honmoku and a deluxe housing project that seems to match the color of yen. Gone too are the streetcars that clanged merrily through the area, giving way to paved roads, highways and the much faster Japan National Railway trains.

With the exception of a few landmarks still remaining from the Kamakura Era (1185-1333) and earlier, Yokohama's history begins with the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet of black ships in 1853.

Until then Yokohama was a small fishing village, cut off from foreign contact (Japan had kept itself in isolation for more than 200 years). But Perry's arrival prompted American demands that a port be opened to American vessels, and Yokohama was chosen by the shogunate as one of the first five ports to accommodate the West.

Today the harbor front remains the city's primary center of attraction. Yamashita Park runs along the harbor and is a favorite rendezvous for young lovers. In the center of the park is a fountain with a statue, the Guardian of the Water, given by Yokohama's sister city, San Diego. There is also a statue of a little girl wearing red shoes, built to honor a popular melancholic song from prewar days: "A little girl who wore red shoes, she's been taken away by a foreigner from Yokohama harbor. . . ."

In front of the park is the New Grand Hotel. Rudyard Kipling stayed there in 1895, and later Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin; then in 1945 the hotel became Gen. Douglas MacArthur's temporary headquarters. It is no longer new or grand, but the view of the harbor from the top-floor Starlight Grill is still one of the finest.

The most famous section of Yokohama is Yamate, known by Westerners simply as the Bluff. Here the British, French and Americans established their little colony soon after the opening of the port--with churches, a hospital, schools, private clubs and mansions commanding the best views of the city.

Immediately below the Bluff is Yokohama's most famous shopping center, Motomachi. Until about 1960, ships were the main mode of international travel in Japan, so the port of Yokohama thrived and along with it such shopping centers as Isezaki-cho and Motomachi.

Now after a decade-long slump, Motomachi has revitalized itself with trendy boutiques, jewelers and restaurants, more than a hundred shops along its main avenue, catering mostly to the affluent.

But the busiest part of the city is the immediate vicinity around Yokohama Central Station, where there are hundreds of shops both underground and above ground, including Japan's single largest department store, Sogo. It is an area almost indistinguishable from those around other major Japanese train stations.

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