Emi Takahata

Lighting Up Yokohama's Past

A gaslight heritage since 1872

Emi Takahata
Emi Takahata   - 6 min read

Home to one of Japan's more elegant historical objects, Yokohama’s Bashamichi district was the first place in the country to utilise gaslights way back in 1872. These days, the local community and the local government have teamed up and restored parts of the city's gaslight heritage.

The result of this cooperation is easily seen when ambling throughout town in the evening: the classic lights shimmer with 81 European-style lights illuminated along Kaigan-dori, Bashamichi Street and Yamashita Park.

Yokohama has come a long way since opening its port to the world in 1859, and is now one of Japan's top ten most popular prefectures for leisure and sightseeing. To this day, the city's mixed culture and historical architecture make it precious and attractive with Yokohama's gaslight heritage playing no small part.

The Bashamichi arch during the day
The Bashamichi arch during the day

Tracing the past through its buildings

Soichiro Noritake, executive director of the Bashamichi Shopping Avenue Cooperative Association, explained to Japan Travel that different routes within the city represent different aspects of Yokohama's past. Known as the Yokohama Gaslight Promenade, the map below shows the red line representing the classic gaslights that stretch out from Bashamichi Street all the way to Yamashita Park (represented by the purple line) while the blue line represents the gaslight heritage of Kaigan Dori.

Yamashita Park route

Along with Yamashita Park, the gaslights symbolise the beginning of Yokohama’s modern history, since, after Japan opened its gates to the world, overseas products came in through the port in Yokohama. Noritake says that the Yamashita Park route, reflects this history and attracts visitors because the gaslight lanterns highlight seasonal trees.

Yamashita Koen Street with gas lamps
Yamashita Koen Street with gas lamps

Kaigan Dori route

The gaslights reveal various historical buildings in the area. These include the Yokohama Customs building (known as the Queen's Tower), the Kanagawa Prefectural Office (nicknamed the King's Tower) and the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall (often called the Jack's Tower) were all built on the waterfront Kaigan Dori. All have been designated as historical buildings.

A road to the Osanbashi Pier with lights
A road to the Osanbashi Pier with lights

Bashamichi Street route

The most significant route is probably Bashamichi Street. Bashamichi adopted many western cultural traits and opened up Japan's first gas lamps, the first ice cream parlor and the first English weekly and daily newspaper. Along with the Bashamichi shotengai shopping avenue, many picturesque spots continue to exist. Different gaslight shapes and designs, memorial statues, historical architecture and even the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History can all be found here.

In front of Kannai City Hall with an old drawing of Bashmichi avenue
In front of Kannai City Hall with an old drawing of Bashmichi avenue

Heritage for the future

A lot of time, money and effort has gone into the preservation of the Yokohama's gaslight heritage. Noritake says, “Gas lamps are much more costly than regular lights. But we will ignite the gas lamps because we inherited them with our ancestors' devotion. I think it's our responsibility to perpetuate the remarkable past."

This effort was confirmed by vice-chairman, Kazuaki Yamaguchi who mentions that modern timers had been installed in all the lamps by hand and so automatically flickered between certain times. Both Noritake and Yamaguchi explain that Tokyo Gas cleaned the glass and remove debris twice a year.

It might be high maintenance but the Bashamichi community along with Bashamichi Shopping Avenue Cooperative Association continue to collaborate closely in order to preserve their history and heritage. Noritake adds, “It’s our role to present these valuable assets to the world. To keep these items takes extra money and time, but we must pass it on to the next generation.”

Tiles of gas lamps and horse drawn carriages on the Bashamichi avenue
Tiles of gas lamps and horse drawn carriages on the Bashamichi avenue

Special events in Bashamichi

The Bashamichi Shopping Avenue Cooperative Association holds annual events:

  • Yokohama Gaslight Festival (October 31) with a lighting ceremony and live music.
  • Bashamichi Festival (October 31 - November 3) celebrates the port's opening in 1859 with horse carriages, rickshaws and live music.
  • Ice Cream Day (May 9) with plenty of ice cream.

Getting there

To get to Bashamichi Street, head to either Kannai Station on the JR Keihin-Tohoku, Negishi or Yokohama Municipal Subway lines or Bashamichi Station on the Minato-Mirai Line.

Emi Takahata

Emi Takahata @takahata.emi

She studied Journalism in Canada. After graduating with honours, she became a producer/host of her Japanese radio show at 105.9FM the region. Besides her radio show, she also contributes/writes an interesting story as a multimedia freelance journalist.