June 27, 2009
I survived Tokyo. Its crowds, its convoluted metro lines, its punishing summer heat. “There’s got to be a morning after,” goes the cheesiest song ever from a disaster movie. After a full day traversing Tokyo, I found that perfect morning after in Yokohama. Not that the day, or night, before was a disaster. It was just the most gruelling city tour I had ever done.
Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city (and I had always thought Osaka held that place). Perhaps Yokohama is not as high-profile as Osaka because it is an incorporated city. It is now part of the Greater Tokyo Area, a contiguous urban sprawl, and only 30 minutes away by train. Its claim to fame is that it strategically fronts Tokyo Bay.
But where had all the people gone, 3.6 million of them? Emerging from the JR station, I was surprised to see – almost no one! A stark contrast to Tokyo’s hustle and bustle. Queen’s Square (a commercial and residential condo-complex) was practically deserted. The floor still had an unsullied sheen. Just outside the station, Cosmo Clock 21, the world’s erstwhile largest Ferris wheel (back in 1989), towered over what seemed to be an abandoned amusement park. It may just have been too early in the morning. This part of Yokohama has that small-town vibe. I felt relieved to have some solitude after being a drop in the surge of humanity in Tokyo and Kawasaki.
Still staggering from the previous day’s walking tour, we ambled towards the Landmark Tower, Japan’s tallest building at 70-storey high. It had all the appeal of a dull-colored Lego pagoda. Actually, it was designed to look exactly that way – tapering like a pagoda, not for its aesthetic or historical value, but for a more practical reason: pagodas usually withstand earthquakes. The building is said to be tremblor-resistant. Yokohama had been levelled in 1923 by the Great Kanto Earthquake, so the design absolutely makes sense. My friend wanted to take us to the observation deck on the 69th floor for a view of Tokyo and the bay – and on a clear day such as this one – possibly, Mount Fuji.
However, sore soles, morning lethargy, and the old-world charm of New Grand Hotel derailed our plans. A bladder break became the highlight of my “morning after” in Yokohama. We simply dropped in to use the restroom, but we ended up lingering in the lobby for about an hour and decided against going to the Landmark Tower.
The hotel may not be grand by today’s standards (at least the original building, the one fronting the bay; there is a modern high-rise annex built in the 1990s), but it is a functional relic of the city’s internationally flavored past. The aforementioned earthquake was the catalyst for the establishment of this classic hotel. It spurred the idea of a hotel that would attract foreign investors to the devastated city. Thus, in 1927 the New Grand Hotel was born to house dignitaries, businessmen, and celebrities, through the years. Think Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
A turn of the revolving door thrust me to the turn of the century – the 20th one. From the entrance, a ceramic-tiled grand staircase led to the second floor. That was its unique feature that time: the second-floor lobby. The hall was shrouded in attenuated light: lamp light by paper lampshades and natural light by heavy tie-back drapes that framed the huge cathedral windows.
Such old-world elegance conjures sounds and images of the swinging 20s: flappers and jazz music. But more concretely, the quiet lobby is redolent of history: the door through which Western influence made its entrance – twice. The Port of Yokohama, seen from the hotel’s lobby windows, was where American commodore Matthew Perry (not the Friends star!) ended Japan’s 200-year isolation, with canons and a handshake, in the 1850s. A century later, General Douglas MacArthur would hold post in the hotel to manage post-war Japan. The hotel was one of the few structures spared by B-29 bombings, allegedly for this very purpose – to become a sort of HQ of American forces.
That was all for the better. Otherwise, such relics as old typewriters would not be on display. I saw one with a document, a banquet prospectus, dated July 3rd, 1926 still rolled on its platen. The paper even predated the hotel!
Across from the hotel lies Yamashita Park. Again, the aforementioned earthquake provided the rubble used to build a reclamation area that the park sits on. It has become a famous date place for Tokyoites. A Japanese friend of mine takes his prospective girlfriends there for romantic evenings. This reclaimed land – including the newly developed area of Queen’s Square and the Landmark Tower – is called Minato Mirai 21, literally “Harbor Future 21”. And the future it alludes to is laidback and intimate, which is more conducive for PDA. It’s unthinkable to swoon in urgent and frenetic Tokyo!
For all its romantic possibilities, Minato Mirai 21 seems better visited in the evening – when the park sparkles with harbor lights (which I have only seen in photos). But after that great earthquake and WW2 bombings, there’s got to be a morning after in Yokohama. And I gladly settled for my own rejuvenating morning after in it. No dazzling lights of the future, just dim pockets of the past.