Japan has three main Chinatowns, all of which are predominantly tourist attractions but also are great places to find Chinese food, souvenirs and have a fun day out.
If you are planning a trip to Japan then you may not typically think of exploring Chinatown, but Japan is actually home to three large Chinatowns throughout the country.
These areas are very popular with tourists but are also great spots to head to if you fancy Chinese food or experiencing something unique within Japan’s borders.
Where are the three main Chinatowns in Japan?
The three best-known Chinatowns are located in Yokohama, Nagasaki, and Kobe. All three locations have the same origin story.
A group of Chinese merchants settled in the areas around the port to make access to trade easily when Japan reopened to international trading toward the end of the nineteenth century. The areas simply grew from there.
However, today the Chinatowns are no longer considered to be residential areas for Chinese immigrants but rather tourist hubs and a place to celebrate Chinese culture and food.
The exception is Yokohama where there are still a large number of descendants from the original Chinese merchants.
The Yokohama port opened up to international trade in 1859 and it was in fact one of the first in Japan to do so after two decades of being closed off to the outside world.
After this international reopening Yokohama’s port area quickly attracted Chinese merchants who settled and founded Chinatown as it is known today.
Yokohama is also the largest of the three Chinatowns in Japan. This means that here you can find a very large variety of Chinese dishes, cultural items, and even occasionally events and celebrations.
Chinatown Yokohama Official Website
What is there to see and do in Yokohama Chinatown?
There are a large number of narrow streets throughout Yokohama Chinatown that are lined with popular restaurants and shops.
The area is particularly colorful, making it a great place to stop and take photos or simply take in the atmosphere. Exactly what is on offer in terms of events will depend on when you visit.
If you are heading to Yokohama towards the beginning of February then there will be New Years’ events.
Head to the Kanteibyo
If you find yourself in Yokohama Chinatown then the first thing you should do is head to the Kanteibyo temple.
The Kanteibyo temple is a very brightly colored temple that is located in the very heart of Chinatown. This particular temple was built in 1873 by the Chinese people who lived in the area.
In keeping with the area’s origin, being settled by merchants, the temple is dedicated to the Chinese god of prosperity and good business.
Throughout Chinatown, you will also see more references to Chinese religious culture such as the five gates that stand at the entrance to Chinatown and there are even an additional five brightly colored gates to be found around the area.
Sample the Authentic foods
Although the bright gates and temple are quite a sight to behold the main reason why the majority of people head to the Chinatown in Yokohama is actually the food.
Here you can find authentic Chinese food, with recipes sometimes passed down through generations.
There are a large number of restaurants ranging in size and offerings. In some cases, you may need to head down a very narrow side street to find the best food.
Some examples of the best food on offer here include steamed buns, ramen, and many others. However, although some dishes are authentic, a lot of them have been adapted for the Japanese palette.
Nagasaki Chinatown actually has its roots further back in history than Yokohama Chinatown as it was the only major port that was allowed to stay open to international trade when the country was in its period of isolation.
Here too the cultural influence of Chinese merchants became rooted in the area and survives today.
Nagasaki Chinatown Official Website
In fact, Nagasaki Chinatown is considered to be the most authentic of the three.
Despite its age, the Chinatown in Nagasaki is relatively condensed, reaching just over one block in size. However, inside of this city block are a large number of small streets and narrow lanes, down which real treasures are hidden.
What is there to see and do in Nagasaki Chinatown?
Just like the other Chinatowns in Japan, there is a wide range of shops and restaurants to experience, offering sometimes authentic Chinese dishes and products and sometimes culturally-altered dishes and products in order to better suit their Japanese market.
For example, Nagasaki Chinatown is one of the best places in the country to eat Japanese dishes that are inspired by Chinese cooking: Sara udon and Chanpon.
The lights festival
If you are lucky enough to be in Chinatown for the New Year’s celebrations then you are in for a treat. In Nagasaki Chinatown, there is the New Year’s lantern festival during which thousands of beautifully colored and decorated lanterns light up the area.
There is no fixed date for this festival so you will need to check the official date before traveling. However, it does typically occur within a two-week window between the end of January and the beginning of March.
The Chinese settlement
Once the Chinese merchants had settled in Nagasaki around the port they were initially permitted to move around the country and relocate if they so desired. However, during the Edo period, they were restricted in their movement to a walled area within the city.
If you are interested in the history of the city, or of Japan itself, then you can head to the Tojin Yashiki settlement to see it for yourself today.
Although the settlement does not remain in its entirety there are still a few buildings standing which is enough to give you the feeling of the area.
Additionally, there are Chinese temples and other buildings in the vicinity.
The Chinatown in Kobe is referred to as Nankinmachi. Just like the other two Chinatowns in Japan, its history rests with the Chinese settlers, and this particular area was the main settlement for Chinese immigrants in the Kansai region.
The port in Kobe was opened to international trade in 1863, making its Chinatown the newest of the three. The name “Nankinmachi” is actually derived from the former Chinese capital of Nanjing.
Kobe Chinatown Official Website
What is there to see and do in Nankinmachi?
Nankinmachi is a great place to spend a day walking around the streets, spend an afternoon shopping, and sampling some of the delicacies that are available.
The area is fairly easy to navigate as there are two main streets that run through Chinatown and meet at a square.
Try the local food
Just like the other two Chinatowns in Japan you are able to find traditional Chinese dishes as well as Japanese-style Chinese dishes. So, there is something for everyone to try here.
There are many places offering both takeout food and sit-down meals and you can find fantastic versions of some of Japan’s most-loved Chinese dishes including ramen noodles, steamed buns, and even tapioca drinks.
It makes a great place to spend the day with family or friends no matter if you are a local or a tourist.