Finding China inside Japan: The Search for the Ultimate Japanese Chinatown

What is a ‘Chinatown’?

Everywhere in the world, there is always a place known as Chinatown. It is a small part of the city known to be the ethnic community that belongs to the Chinese outside of their home country of China or Taiwan.  In history, Chinatowns have been developed through the mass migration of Chinese into one area.

The oldest Chinatown in the world is located in Binondo, Philippines which was established in the 1500s through the influence of the Spanish settlers. It was originally established as a home for all Catholic Chinese families residing in the country at the time. Since then, it became a center for business and commerce. It is home to residents who have Chinese-Filipino heritage, even up until today.

Although there is really no way to say which Chinatown in the world is the largest, there are a few notable places that are worth a peek. For instance, the Chinatown in San Francisco USA is one of the most popular in all of the US. It was established in the 1800s and is a residence to hundreds of families. It is also home to shops and restaurants popular in the area. This place was originally established due to the California Gold Rush where Chinese workers have migrated to the area to work for gold mines.

The History of Chinatown in Japan

As discussed, there are numerous Chinatowns in the world, each a bit unique than the other. And since China was a power player during the era of expeditions, it is without a doubt that they had significant influence over its surrounding countries. China has been known to be one of the most influential cultures in Asia, expanding their influence to Korea, Japan, Thailand, and even the Philippines.

In Japan, today’s Chinatowns are usually located along ports. This is because of the fact that these places have been residential zones for Chinese merchants when the country first opened to foreign trade during the late 1800s.

All in all, there is what is known as the “Three Great Chinatowns” in Japan which consists of the three major Chinese influenced districts in the entire country. These are known to be Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki. On the other hand, although they are significantly smaller, there had been a number of Chinatowns that have emerged in the country throughout the centuries.

For those who wish to visit Chinatowns in Japan, it might be a good idea to take maps as guides since these places are mostly pedestrian-only places. The streets are narrow and winding. Although, generally, the place could be reached through the expressway getting into the heart of the town would require long but enjoyable walks.

Chinese Influences to Japan

Japanese Writing

Through the centuries, the Chinese had a very strong influence on the Japanese culture. One of the biggest influence of China to the Japanese culture would be the form and system of writing. Through the centuries, the Japanese have been using the Kanji system of writing. It is one of the oldest forms of Japanese writing whose characters are closely similar to the Chinese way of writing.

Religion in Japan

It is through Chinese migration and trade with the Japanese that the Buddhist religion reached the shores of Japan. It was in the 6th century when this religion was brought to the country and since then has strongly intertwined with the Japanese culture. More than a third of the Japanese population are Buddhist, an indication that the influence of the Chinese to the Japanese culture is strong.

Chinese food in Japan

Another of the most popular influences of China to Japan would be the food. Most of the noodle dishes of the Japanese have been strongly influenced by Chinese cooking. These include the soba, the udon, and more. There are indications that the Japanese Gyoza has been derived from Chinese dumplings as well. Among some of the delicacies that have been famous in Japan include all deep-fried dishes, rice, and seafood. These include simmered food and steamed food.

One of the most notable influences of the Chinese culture to the Japanese would be the use of chopsticks in Japan during the Heian period. During this time, only the nobility was allowed to use this new technology in food. Before then, the Japanese mostly used their hands to eat. However, through the centuries, the Japanese have adapted to using the chopsticks as an everyday utensil used for eating.

The Biggest Chinatowns in Japan

The Three Great Chinatowns of Japan:

Nagasaki Chinatown

This place is considered as one of the Three Great Chinatowns of Japan and has been known to be Japan’s oldest Chinatowns as it was established in the 1700s. In history, the Shinchi Chinatown played such an important role as it was the only port opened to Chinese trade at the time when Japan closed its doors to foreign trading. This is a way for the Japanese government to prevent the spread of Christianity to the country. Since it has been a little piece of China found at the depths of Japanese soils.

Walking around the city gives that authentic and rustic feel of China. There are shops that sell completely Chinese goods, there are lanterns on the street, and shop signs are often in Chinese or Kanji. People are selling all kinds of things on the streets from fruits to clothing and more. It is an interesting travel destination as it gives the sweet twist between Chinese and Japanese culture.

What makes this place quite popular nowadays is the fact that it is best known for its shops and restaurants. Among the most popular dishes are the champon and the Sara udon, two of the must-eats in all of Nagasaki. On a normal day, it would be a good idea to go before they open at 11:00 AM or at 5:00 PM because the lines are quite long. The good thing is that it is usually open up until 9:00 at night.

Although the place is quite crowded and there are many shops on the streets, it is still to the best interest of shop owners to ensure the cleanliness of the entire town. To get to the Nagasaki Chinatown, one has to take the tram and get down at the Tsukimachi stop through the lines 1 and 5. From there, it would take less than a 5-minute walk to get to the Shinchi Chinatown.

Kobe Chinatown: The Nankinmachi

The Kobe Chinatown, also known popularly as the Nankinmachi, is one of the three great Chinatowns in all of Japan. It was established in the 1800s, right after Japan opened its ports again to foreign trade. It used to be the settlement of Chinese merchants in the Kansai Region. It was called the Nanjing Town of Kobe and has been named after Nanjing which was the capital city of China at the time.

Through time, the Nankinmachi almost lost its place. This is a majority of the Chinese settlers went back to China during the Sino-Japanese war. However, the residents that remained in the area rebuilt the town and made it flourish again after the war. To date, there are roughly more than 10,000 residents in the Nankinmachi alone.

Unlike the Nagasaki Chinatown, the Nankinmachi is more modern and compact. Its primary tourist attraction would be the shopping experience that cannot be paralleled to other parts of Japan. The streets are completely lined with shops and restaurants.

Among the most popular must-eats from the area is the manju, or steamed buns. Other popular dishes from this area are ramen and tapioca drinks. Of course, there are restaurants that offer authentic Chinese food such as duck and the like. However, there are also places that offer up Japan-influenced Chinese food.

Just like the Nagasaki Chinatown, the place is well-maintained despite the crowd. This place is located south of the Motomachi station. From there, it would take about a 5-minute walk through the town. For those trying to access this tourist attraction, they could go down at the Sannomiya Station and take a ten-minute walk to the Chinatown.

The Chinatown in Yokohama Japan

Known to be the largest Chinatown in all of Japan, the Yokohama Chinatown is known to be the center of Chinese-Japanese trade in the entire prefecture. Just like the Nankinmachi, the Yokohama Chinatown was established after the Japanese ports were reopened in the 1800s. This area of the port was developed all very quickly and soon after businesses and commerce started to sprout from all over the city.

What is special about this place, and also its main attraction would be the Kanteibyo. This is a temple located at the center of the city. It was built at the time the Yokohama Chinatown was established and was built to celebrate the gods of prosperity. Among the picture-perfect part of the city would be the four colorful gates that are located at the entrances of the Chinatown.

The best time to travel to this place is during the month of February, during the Chinese New Year season. It is during this time when the streets are most colorful. The stores offer up discounts and promo packages that offer the best deals for their shoppers. It is also during this time when special dishes and delicacies are sold at restaurants, a sign to celebrate the coming of the new year. Usually, the New Year’s is a week-long celebration of good food and firecrackers.

Today, there are a number of testimonies that indicate that there are more businesses than residents in the city. A number of shops have been owned by a single family through the last century. This place could be accessed through the Motomachi-Chukagai Station of the Minato Mirai Line. Or, travelers can opt to go to this place through the Ishikawacho Station of the JR Negishi line.

Other Chinatowns in Japan

China Town in Osaka Japan

Although the Three Great Chinatowns of Japan are well-known throughout the country, there are a number of smaller spaces all over that are pretty much little pieces of China as well. One place which is popular in Osaka would be the Dotonbori. This is located at the center of the Osaka prefecture and is the perfect place to shop for souvenirs.

The streets are lined up with shops that sell tiny items to large-scale Chinese souvenir items. A number of people go to this place to dine as well. The street food is a local favorite and going at night is the best time because of all the neon signs and lanterns. A lot of foreign tourists go to this place because of nooks such as the America Mura and the Shinsaibashi-Suji, a great place for shopping.

Chinatown in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro

This place has been in the works since 2008 and the new Tokyo Chinatown has been opened officially in 2015. Originally, the plan has been put in place by Chinese immigrants and merchants that live in Tokyo. However, a number of Japanese locals have resisted the plan. It is the first Chinatown of all of Tokyo and has become quite a bustling commercial center since it was opened.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been loosely providing opportunities for their locals to go to other countries including Japan. Since then, the number of Chinese immigrants in the country has increased quite rapidly. Since this time, a number of Chinese shops and restaurants have started sprouting out in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. However, it was not officially considered as a Chinatown. Now, there are Chinese restaurants and shops that line up its streets. There are also supermarkets, herbal medicine shops, and Chinese bookstores in the area.

Among the favorite eats is the Shanghai styled pan-fried buns known as the xiao long bao which costs only about 400 yen. There are noodle shops around the area and restaurants that offer the best Chinese food in the city.