Gaslights to brighten Yokohama evenings

YOKOHAMA, Japan - A project to establish a "gaslight promenade" about three kilometers long is about to kick off in Yokohama, where the first gaslights in Japan were introduced 145 years ago. 

The promenade will connect Yamashita Park, a famous sightseeing spot, and the Kannai area, where a historical streetscape remains. The Yokohama municipal government has allotted 2 million yen $17,500 U.S.) in its fiscal 2017 budget as a design fee to embark on a night view creation project to add the promenade to the many charms of the city.  

The aim of the project is to encourage tourists to stay overnight in Yokohama, where day-trippers outnumber overnight visitors.  

Japan's first gaslights were installed around the area currently known as Bashamichi in 1872, shortly after the port of Yokohama was opened to foreign ships. Bashamichi means carriage drive.  

"Gaslights were essential to the western-style streetscape that developed after the port opening," said Yusuke Aoki, senior curator at the Museum of Yokohama Urban History in Naka Ward.  

A total of about 300 gaslights were installed that year, but they were devastated in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Gaslights then disappeared for a while as electric ones became widely used.  

The historical buildings that remain on the Bashamichi avenue - so named because horse-drawn carriages passed up and down the road after the port opened - include the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History, a renowned western-style building designated as an important national cultural property.  

The city and the local shopping district jointly set up 81 gas lamps by March 2003 in an effort to make gaslights, a symbol of the Westernization of Japan, the symbol of the city.  

Forty gaslights were also installed by the municipal government around Yamashita Park to promote tourism, but the about one-kilometer stretch between the park and the avenue remained without them.  

The municipal government plans to fill the gap by installing gaslights in the area stretching from the Kanagawa prefectural government building - dubbed the "king" for reasons including its shape - to the Yokohama Customs, which is dubbed the "queen."  

"We want to make the area a place where people can enjoy strolling at night while getting to know the history of Yokohama," said an official of the city's Urban Development Bureau. Construction work is expected to start as early as fiscal 2018, and the city will consider the number of gaslights to install.  

According to statistics compiled by local governments, Yokohama saw an influx of 37.61 million visitors in 2015, about 90 percent of which were day-trippers. This is because many people come from the Tokyo metropolitan area.  

The average spending per person was about 5,000 yen ($45 U.S.) for day-trippers, while visitors who stayed overnight spent about 28,000 yen on average. The municipal government is aiming to make day-trippers change their minds and stay overnight by creating a new night view.  

The cooperative association of shops on the Bashamichi avenue holds events, including a lamp-lightening ceremony, on Oct. 31 to celebrate the day when the nation's first gaslights were lit.  

"As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games approach, we can spread the news that this city has a new attraction," said Katsuhito Rokukawa, director of the cooperative association.

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