There are 3 major Chinatown districts in Japan. They are located in Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki. I have had the pleasure to visit each one and all of them are different. To me Chinatown is a tourist destination that isn’t really an actual Chinese area. When people say you must go to Chinatown, I feel like I am about to head to a tourist trap with various vendors hawking their wares. Japan, unfortunately, continues this stereotypical trend. Being of Chinese descent and having visited China I feel that Chinatown is not a great representation of Chinese people or China in general. While the surrounding areas may be more representative, I feel as if I entered an amusement park where stereotypical Chinese culture is on display.
The biggest Chinatown in Japan is in Yokohama. Located at the end of the Minato-mirai Line, which happens to be connected to the Tokyu Toyoko Line, is the Chinatown where most people will visit when they come to Japan. It also happens to be the most crowded and touristy of the three Chinatowns. I found that the area is almost completely filled with Japanese people and various restaurants selling different types of buns. I never had a great time visiting Chinatown in Yokohama and rarely recommend it to tourists. Japanese people tend to love it there and think that the food is all authentic Chinese food. Unfortunately most of it is Japanese variations of traditional Chinese dishes. It can be hard to get excited when the Chinese chefs adapt their dishes to Japanese tastes, but that is how they make their money. I may also be slightly biased due to the fact that I found a small worm/maggot in a buffet lunch and all they did was use the tongs to throw it in the garbage. Not the most hygienic method of fixing the problem if you ask me. If you enjoy large crowds and Japanese style Chinese food, Yokohama’s Chinatown is a nice place to visit.
As you can tell, bigger does not equal better. Kobe has the second largest Chinatown in Japan. It is actually called Nankinmachi (after Nanjing) rather than Chukagai (Chinese Street). It is one of the best Chinatowns in Japan, in my opinion. It is lined with various food stalls and a few touristy souvenir shops as well as the stereotypical Chinese style architecture of Asian styled red roofs. Once you get past the touristy look of this Chinatown, you can get a lot of good food and a large variety of it too. Kobe’s Chinatown is also less crowded than Yokohama which makes it a lot easier to move around. Sometimes trying to get around in Yokohama can be a challenge as there are people spread across the entire street making it nearly impossible to move faster than a snail. In Kobe, this is not a problem at all. The only problem with the Kobe Chinatown is the fact that it is very touristy. It is hard to escape the fact that they do cater to tourists but thankfully I also saw many Chinese tourists when I visited so it couldn’t be that bad. I’m sure they are curious as to how Japan views Chinese culture just as Japanese people are curious to try sushi in other countries.
The last Chinatown, and smallest is Nagasaki. It spans just a few blocks and it is lined with various large and small shops. Like the other Chinatown’s, it is dominated with restaurants but the unique feature of this Chinatown is the number of other types of shops such as fireworks and medicine shops. You can easily notice a huge difference in atmosphere in Nagasaki. I felt relatively safe in Yokohama and Kobe however in Nagasaki I felt it was a little dangerous, comparatively. It could also be the fact that I walked in the area around midnight. In Nagasaki, it is common to see Chinese people as in Kobe but you can also eat the famous Nagasaki Champon, Sara Udon, and Kakuni Manju. These are all delicious, yet Japanese variations of originally Chinese dishes. I do enjoy them the most as they are fairly close to Chinese tastes. Due to the size of Nagasaki’s Chinatown, it is difficult to elaborate a lot on the different things in Chinatown as there really isn’t a lot.
Chinatown in Japan is something that a resident should see once in their stay in Japan. However for the average tourist, I doubt a trip to Chinatown would be very high on their list of things to see or do. I find it to be overly touristy and focused on Japanese people. As with many other Chinatown’s in various other countries, I rarely visit them. I prefer to go to the real thing. I have already visited Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Beijing. I doubt I could find anything that is specifically Chinese in any Chinatown in the world, even in my hometown Vancouver. The food is good, for the most part, but dealing with the crowds and tourist activities is not as enjoyable for me. I would much rather go to a normal Chinese restaurant in another area than head to Chinatown. In fact, for people looking for a more authentic Chinese food, Ikebukuro is reputed as a secret Chinatown. Many Chinese people take up residence near Ikebukuro leading to many Chinese restaurants being located there. It is also somewhat contentious as the Chinatown merchants in Yokohama have complained openly about the idea of starting a Chinese Business Association in Ikebukuro as they feel it will create a rival Chinatown to their destination. I doubt things will really change in the near future but who knows about the long term.