Photo/IllutrationThe east gate of Yokohama Chinatown. More than 250 Chinese restaurants line the colorful and crowded streets in this largest Chinatown in Japan. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

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“Gosh, Yokohama Chinatown has changed,” I thought on my recent visit.

But wait, has it really?

I couldn’t help but notice the many new fly-by-night and virtually penniless startup businesses that have sprung up. What’s with all the chintzy fortune-telling, nice but ubiquitous name paintings and pretty much identical roasted chestnuts stalls but with not a single roaster in sight? And those touts. ...

Sorry for ranting. I guess I’m old school.

The original Chinese immigrants came as servants and assistants to Westerners who docked ship at the newly opened port of Yokohama around 1859. The Westerners had homes built on the Yamate hills, and the Chinese formed settlements on lower ground closer to the ocean. They built schools, houses of worship and businesses. Many were here for the long haul.

Chinese traders traveled to and from Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities that also had Western settlements, and they served as translators and agents for Japanese who were not yet accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Chinese architects and craftsmen came to build sought-after Western-style buildings, and they established themselves here.

There’s a plaque in Chinatown commemorating Joseph Heco (1837-1897), the first Japanese who obtained U.S. citizenship and published what many believe to be Japan’s first printed Japanese-language newspaper.

Plenty of people walk through Chinatown looking down at the steaming hot meat buns in their hands, but I recommend people shift their gaze and look up at the second and third floors of the shops lining the streets.

People don’t know what they’re missing! There are many old facades, often with the year the building was erected written on them, and fanciful signage. It’s a feast for the eyes.

Chinatown has been through a lot: the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923), the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), the bombings by the Allies in World War II, and the strain in relations between the China and Taiwan, not to mention Japan. The community has found itself in a cycle of repeatedly being torn apart and then coming together.

In the 1950s and 60s, the area became a hangout for foreign sailors and could get pretty rowdy. It was considered a place that proper Japanese would not visit. It was only from the 1970s that the area started becoming a trendy tourist spot for Japanese.

The oldest Chinese restaurant in Japan, Heichinro, opened for business in 1884. I suppose change is the only constant. Still, I’d like to root for businesses that are “rooted” and not just out to make a quick buck, or yen or renminbi.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Feb. 4 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.