Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | February 23, 2010

Going for a Wok in Chinatown (Yokohama, Japan)

Over Christmas break Rachael and I took a short train ride to Yokohama, Japan (about 45 minutes) in search of one of her Christmas presents.

When we arrived, we realized we’d forgotten our guidebook, which despite living here for a year and a half is still quite valuable for things like this.  So, using only our eyes and noses to guide us, we meandered through the brightly lit and distinctly not-Japanese streets of Chinatown. Here are some photos from the harbor area, a few blocks from Chinatown.

Yokohama Harbor, a few blocks from Chinatown

Taken in a "couples swap" (we take their picture, they take ours)

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

We agreed to move to Japan without an inkling of knowledge about Japanese culture or history.  Since that time, we’ve both delved into Japan in our own ways: me through studying the language as much as I can, Rachael through learning to cook with some serious Japanese flair.  Walking around Chinatown was a bit of a revelation for me.  I probably couldn’t have told you many differences between Chinese and Japanese cultures before moving to Japan.  Sure, I knew about sushi and had heard of geishas, but I was basically an ignorant fool when we began this journey.  Chinatown showed me how well I’m actually getting to know Japan through living in Tokyo, even as insulated as our lives are from “true” Japanese culture working at an international school and attending an international church.

Chinatown is fascinating.  Just look at some of these photos of the streets.  We enjoyed a little treat (steamed bun with minced pork inside) along the way.

This was in many shop windows- shark fin, maybe?


Buying our snack

The architecture in Chinatown doesn’t feel like Japan.  The food doesn’t taste like Japan.  And the restaurant service…now that difference deserves more than a passing mention.

Customer service in Japan tends towards the ludicrous, at least on the surface level.  People call to you in the street, respectfully bidding you to come in their shops and take a look.  Walking into a restaurant, you are often greeted by each employee emphatically yelling “welcome” (irashaimase!).  Department stores, grocers, ramen shops, and fishmongers all greet you with the same phrase.  To be honest, I love it.  Many people seem put off by it, but it’s just plain fun to me.  The first thing I noticed when we walked into a restaurant for dinner in Chinatown was that nobody welcomed us with an exuberant “irashaimase!”  It was bizarre.

We were quietly led to our seats and made our first order only after waiting 15-20 minutes and doing all we could to get the server’s attention.  This has never happened to me in a Japanese restaurant.  Simply say “excuse me” (sumimasen) and you’ll usually have someone at your table in a few brief moments.  There was no such service at this restaurant.

The food was decent, but nothing like the simple, beautiful food I have come to love in Japan.  Ornate sushi platters and hand-turned Japanese-style kabobs are now a common craving for me.  Last, upon leaving the restaurant, we took the receipt that was on our table and walked to the front door.  We waited for a few minutes until someone noticed and came to help us pay our bill.  In about fifteen seconds, she took my bills, put change on a plate and walked away- no “thank you,” no escorting us out the door, and certainly no bow of gratitude for our patronage.  Now, I realize that sentence may sound arrogant and is a ridiculous expectation just about anywhere else in the world, but this is what we have come to expect here in Tokyo because it’s what happens at 99% of the restaurants.  The lack of basic customer service at this one restaurant was an amazing difference to me between two great cultures.  I don’t know enough about China or Chinese culture to really know if there is a difference, but that’s what we saw that night.

Could it have been that the employees of this particular restaurant just had an off night?  Could they just be terrible at customer service, and all the other Chinese restaurants would be different?  That’s definitely possible.  But it was at least interesting to think about our experience in Japan and how bizarrely different and unsatisfying it felt to dine at a restaurant in Japan that didn’t feel like a restaurant in Japan.

Before leaving Chinatown, we found our holy grail: a locally produced Chinese wok for Rachael’s kitchen.  She has now used this to make all sorts of new dishes that our other pans just couldn’t do.  With the close proximity of Chinatown from Tokyo, we’ll definitely be back, and I’ll let you know if things are different the second time around.

Wok on, Rachael, wok on.



  1. well. thats cool, sounds like a fun place

  2. Will you be a travel writer someday? You could! Also love the pictures.

  3. Hey Brad – I loved reading your thoughts on the Chinatown look and feel, and especially the reports of bad service at the restaurant!! China is a whole different world compared to Japan, and even the rest of Asia. It’s definitely a ‘push and shove your way to the front’ kind of culture, and because of that people like waitresses are pretty lazy. They don’t take the extra initiative to ask if you are ready to order or if you are finished and ready for the bill.

    In China we have to raise our hand and hail down a server and, trust me, there have been many times when I have been sitting in a restaurant waving my hand like an over-eager school kid trying to get someone’s attention for at least 5 minutes! Ok, well maybe not that long, but too long, for sure. And the same goes when you are ready for the bill. It’s pretty common knowledge that you should ask for the bill well in advance of finishing because it could take eon’s for them to bring change. Part of the reason for this is because there is no tipping in Chian. Why go out of your way for someone if there is nothing in it for you, right?

    So try this next time you are in a Chinatown restaurant….unashamedly raise your hand and start yelling “Foo-Yen” (waitor) and they will come a-running! Don’t be nervous, it’s totally normal and I even catch myself starting to do that in places when I am home in the US!! Oops.

    I often get jealous of friends living in Japan or Korea because of the niceties they get to experience while I live in the dirty and rude country. But it does have it’s perks….I don’t feel so bad anymore elbowing people and making a run for a free seat on the bus. When in Rome!! Ha ha. But all in all, China is a really interesting place and definitely a great personal challenge for me. I’ve really overcome a lot in the past year, and I can honestly say I’m really enjoying life in China. Come over and visit sometime and we’ll show you the ropes! Until then, enjoy your kind Japanese service and good luck in Chinatown!!


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