October 30, 2020

Yokohama's Koganecho

Formerly a sleazy red light district that was chock of brothels, this part of Yokohama has now been transformed into a haven for artists.

“To be honest, art was the only answer.”

— Yamano Shingo
An art display in Yokohama's Koganecho area

Hail fellow travelers. This week, I want to introduce a slice of Yokohama that has long been on my radar. Known as Koganecho, this area has a rather dark and tragic history to it. Thankfully though, the powers that be took it upon themselves to shine a light into this wretched corner of town several years ago. Since then, Koganecho has been reborn like a phoenix into something entirely new. While formerly a wretched hive of scum and villainy that could rival Tatooine’s Mos Eisley from the Star Wars universe, these days Koganecho is a flourishing haven for the arts.

Why Koganecho’s history is so horrific is a intricately complex tale. The long and the short of it is that this part of Yokohama was bombed completely flat during World War II. Then, during the subsequent American Occupation, a black market sprung up from the rubble. As is often the case in situations like this, the section of the city became a hotbed for illegal activity. Eventually, the American soldiers would leave but Koganecho’s narcotics and prostitution problem was there to stay. By the end of the millenium, there were as many as 150 one-room brothels littered about the streets of Koganecho.

As you can easily imagine, having a thriving prostitution scene so close to the heart of Yokohama wasn’t a good look. With the 150th anniversary of the opening of the port city to the west on the horizon, Yokohama officials knew that something needed to be done; the question though, was what. Though ridding Koganecho of its seedy underbelly could be efficiently achieved via what would come to be called “Operation Bye Bye,” the real challenge lay in what to do thereafter. Without the allure of the temptations of the flesh, locals feared that Koganecho would quickly wither up and die.

One of the many small art galleries in Yokohama’s Koganecho

In the end, the only solution gaining a consensus was to follow an artistic path forward. In response, Yokohama quickly implemented a plan by which they would transform the entire former red light district into an enclave of art galleries. All of the tiny brothels were gutted and revitalized into small studios such as the one seen above where budding creators could ply their craft. To sway artists to set up shop in Koganecho, Yokohama even went as far as subsidizing much of the rental fees thereby allowing newbies to try their hand at running a business for the first time.

In addition to these incentives, Yokohama also built two large studios directly under the railway tracks. These new workshops were designed to be as transparent as possible in a conscious cry of defiance to Koganecho’s illicit past. Both of the facilities feature wide open glass windows and are mounted by a wooden walkway from which visitors can watch the artists at work below. Well, that’s at least how it operates during the week. Alas, travelers who pop by during the weekend may be saddened to learn the creative spirits are pared down. Should you be curious to visit, heed my warning and don’t go on a Saturday or Sunday!

Getting to Koganecho

A sign reads “Koganecho” on a pillar that supports the overhead train tracks

The trek to Koganecho is a real breeze compared to some of the other far-flung places that I’ve featured on this blog. All you need to do is take one of the JR trains heading south to Yokohama Station. From there, you can transfer to the Keikyu Line. In just six short minutes, you should find yourself at Koganecho Station. As always, refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service to make calculating routes a breeze. All in all, the trip from Tokyo runs no more than an hour or so.

If you’re a glutton for punishment like me, note that you can also elect to walk all the way from Sakuragicho Station. Just follow the Ooka River and you’ll eventually wind up in Koganecho in approximately fifteen minutes. En route, you’ll pass through the boozy backstreets of Noge. Seeing you’re going to appreciate some art, it’s probably best to save the drinking for the way back. Alternatively, Koganecho is also quite close to Minato Mirai if you haven’t visited that part of Yokohama yet.

Here’s a link to a Google Map that will outline where Koganecho is in relation to the rest of Yokohama…

What to See in Koganecho

A metal piece of artwork in Yokohama’s artsy Koganecho area

I don’t really have any real recommendations for must-sees when it comes to Koganecho other than the area itself. You see, the whole charm of this part of Yokohama lies in leisurely strolling about while you appreciate the unique craftwork on display. Around every nook and in every cranny, you’ll encounter a cluster of murals, installations, and masterful one-of-a-kind creations. Honestly, no matter where you look, you’ll find something intriguing. Hell, even the police box has an anime-style hawk on its roof called Isetaka-kun that is said to keep watch over the reborn Koganecho.

In addition to all of the artwork, one other alluring feature about Koganecho is its homely collection of cafes and eateries. Many of these establishments are run by first time business owners who took advantage of Yokohama’s generous renewal offer. I personally ended up parking my rear in a coffee roastery cum cafe called Chair that is located directly under the railway tracks. After a good hour or so meandering about Koganecho, it was the perfect perch for banging out some work that needed to be done.

Keep in mind that the best time of the year to visit Koganecho is during the months of September, October, and November. This three-month period marks the annual observance of the Koganecho Bazaar. Originally held in 2008 in conjunction with the Yokohama Triennale, this celebration of the arts is something you don’t want to miss if you’re interested in supporting the local artists. Here’s the website for 2020’s Koganecho Bazaar. While our friend Rona-chan has ensured that few of you will be in Japan to visit, you can at least experience some of the work digitally.

Attractions Near Koganecho

Yokohama’s boozy Noge area near Sakuragicho Station

Simply put, I’m utterly overwhelmed with work these days as I transition from a decade long position at Kyodo PR. Since I am understandably rather short on time right now, I don’t want to draw this one out any further than necessary. Still, before ending this article on Koganecho, I really do need to recommend that you plan on having dinner in Noge. This part of Yokohama is almost entirely unknown to foreign tourists but it is possibly one of the best bits of the city. Whenever I am in town, I always find the time to visit one of Noge’s many izakaya.

Until next time travelers…