Before I came to Japan, I was told that the Japanese people don’t celebrate Western holidays or traditions, one of them being Christmas. Is this true? Judging by the drastic increase of people frantically shopping around for presents, the change of standard gift wrapping to festive greens and reds bearing Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and the obvious Christmas-themed displays in all the major department stores, I would have to disagree with that misconception. I doubt that anyone would go to such great lengths, nor invest such a considerable amount of money, if they weren’t sure that the general public would appreciate the large, well decorated trees on display, or the all-too-familiar Christmas jingles – in Japanese – playing over the speaker systems. Aside from Christmas being a regular work day (although thankfully not at Smith’s School of English), I think that the people in Japan enjoy this season just as much as any the people in any Western country would.
In my family, and probably many others, Christmas is a special time where families gather together to celebrate, trade gifts, and indulge themselves in a feast worthy of kings. There would be a big seven foot Christmas tree filled with ornaments of various size, shape, and material, wrapped up in bright sparkling tinsel and flashing lights, blocking out half of the front window in the living room. It didn’t just spring up overnight either. In Canada, most of these ornamental trees make an appearance as early as November, and are left up until the end of January. Very late on Christmas Eve, or early Christmas morning, many colorfully wrapped presents tended to mysteriously find their way underneath this magnificent tree. After opening the presents and littering the living room with a wasteland of wrapping paper, ribbons, and empty boxes, it would be time to get ready for dinner. The dinner preparations consumed most of the day and were naturally carried out by my mother. She was the only one who could be trusted with our festive treasure – a great big roasted turkey. Well, it eventually wound up being roasted after the thawing, washing, and removing of giblets. Not that anyone really wants to know about the giblets. Although the turkey was the centerpiece of our dinner (and table), it was always dutifully balanced with a collection of roasted potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, and more vegetables than I could drown in my share of the gravy. I can just taste that turkey now… In more recent years, due in part to increased appetites and the desire to make turkey soup, my family’s dinner menu has added on another turkey. Two turkeys and one wonderful night of overeating. Throw in some red wine, champagne, and a homemade mincemeat pie and you’ve got a meal that you won’t soon forget.
Sending the Christmas spirit home for the holidays
The last time that I returned to Canada during the holiday season to partake in the festivities – and turkey worshipping – was three years ago. Since I first came to Japan, the airfare has more than doubled, tripling during the holiday season. Due to the fact that it is economically unfeasible (and downright impossible) for me to be with my family at Christmas, I had to come up with a way to send my Christmas spirit to them while celebrating in as traditional a way as I could with my husband. The first part was not so difficult to accomplish, just time consuming is all. My family has a great interest in the Japanese culture, including the clothing styles and foods, so no matter what I picked I couldn’t go wrong. Shopping for my sister was the easiest because I know what she’s into. A very friendly and helpful young lady in Umeda’s EST went out of her way to help me choose something suitable. Not only did she give me several suggestions, but she also entertained me by modeling some of the current fashion trends until I was able to pick the ‘right’ present. My grandmother was also relatively easy to shop for because I always go to the same store filled with knitted and embroidered sweaters. The other members in my family were a bit difficult to get presents for but in the end, I had enough parcels to jam into Japan Post’s largest cardboard box. In fact, bringing back memories of last year’s Christmas box, I also had to sit on this one in order to tape it shut. Amazingly, the box arrived at my family’s doorstep four days after I had mailed it! What great holiday service!
Need a Christmas bird? Call KFC!
With my family happy with their presents, which were supposed to go underneath the Christmas tree but were eagerly distributed very early by my overexcited sister, it was time to plan my own Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is just about everywhere now so I had no problem in finding inspiration around just about every corner. Whereas the majority of Western families celebrate Christmas with a turkey (or in some cases a roasted ham), the Japanese people have their own traditions which are not that far off from my own. I wouldn’t have believed it without seeing it with my own eyes, but Japan’s major holiday bird supplier is Kentucky Fried Chicken. For three days – Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the day after Christmas – KFC dedicates its manpower solely to fulfilling festive meal pre-orders. Their regular menu receives a boost with whole roasted chicken dinners (limited by area), chocolate cakes, and collectable dishes. For anyone who has never spent Christmas in Japan, it’s interesting to see chicken dinners being distributed outside the front doors of KFC during their 3-day promotion. The KFC in my area is nearly completely booked up on all three days with Christmas orders, including my own.
Having taken care of the dinner (and now as I write this I have just remembered that I need to find cranberry sauce somewhere), I moved onto the dessert. Instead of the dessert being one designated item, I found that it accumulated over the weeks. The most important dessert was the Christmas cake. And the local cake shop, just like the KFC, works hard to prepare and hand out pre-ordered cakes on Christmas and Christmas Eve. The demand is so great that they have limitations on certain cake designs and sell out quickly. They are also unable to handle regular business on these days because of the overwhelming strain that baking and distributing these cakes puts on their employees. I’ve never seen so many cakes before at one time, in one place. In addition to the bakers hard at work making the cakes inside the store, a truck filled from top to bottom with cakes assembled at another location also arrives to help out.
So, having pre-ordered my double layered strawberry cream cake, I scrounged around some of the import grocery stores for little snacks. I knew that I had to be quick this year because last year I procrastinated for too long and all the goodies sold out before I had a chance to get my fair share. This is probably the first year that I go my hands on real peppermint candy canes to hang around my apartment. They quickly became a burden for my miniature tree so I had to start hanging them in unorthodox locations, like on the edge of the TV set, or from a picture frame. After the candy canes, I spotted a pyramid of fruit cakes in another store and thought, ‘why not?’, stacking it into my shopping cart. The shortbread was tempting but I might wait a while before buying it because last year my mother sent me four boxes of it! Enough to last me a lifetime! I never would have thought that mincemeat pie would be popular enough to package and sell in Japan, especially because I’ve never even seen it sold in Canada. So when I saw a box with the label ‘real Scottish mincemeat pie’, I just couldn’t resist. Into the cart it went. Another reason why these were great choices is because my husband has never tried them before. It’ll be a nostalgic treat for me and an enlightening experience for him… maybe.
Don’t forget to visit Liyon-chan!
One of the most cheerful places to take some Christmas pictures is outside of the MBS building, across from Umeda’s Loft. This is home to TV channel 4’s mascot, Liyon-chan. There is now a massive Christmas tree hovering in front of the building, its branches holding many ornaments and little Liyon-chan’s in snowball form. The street leading up to the building is also well decorated. All of the trees are wrapped up in bright lights, which can be seen from the Hankyu Umeda station. Inside the MBS building is Liyon-chan’s home, containing a small display of the odd lion in a home-type setting. This changes all year round and currently has a very festive atmosphere. For anyone who is a major fan of Liyon-chan, or just wants to see something cute, he has two DVDs for sale with his short commercials. On one of them is a really cute Christmas jingle with Liyon-chan singing. When I showed it to my family, my mother and sister couldn’t stop laughing (neither of them understanding a word of Japanese) so I assume that the images are good enough as entertainment. Just opposite of the MBS building is Hankyu International Hotel, which also has a very large Christmas tree. This tree is more artistic and less traditional than Liyon-chan’s but still great for pictures and enjoying.
Speaking of Christmas trees, it is remarkably easy to purchase one, either artificial or real. The artificial ones are available in quite a few shops, including Loft, and come in different sizes, colors, and styles. Real ones are not as easy to find, however, there are very nice small ones in the flower shop not two minutes away from Smith’s School of English, Kyobashi. I spotted these on my way to work one day and wished that we had the space for it. Some of them even come pre-decorated! In other shops, there are tiny Christmas plants with Santa Claus stuck into the pot beside Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, and bonsai styled miniature trees. Poinsettias are also quite popular with these flower shops.
Christmas in Japan is slightly different from the way that it is celebrated in Western countries for one reason. It is geared more towards romantic couples than it is to families. There is still a strong need to buy children presents but the need to gather as a family is not evident because the New Year’s already serves that purpose. So during this time of year, many of the hot springs and restaurants receive reservations for couples that just want to celebrate by themselves. And most of this celebrating takes place on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas itself. Going out to a restaurant on Christmas is not so bad if you don’t mind the crowds. However, if you want to eat out on Christmas Eve, you’d better make sure that you’ve booked your table weeks in advance. I experienced this firsthand last year as I walked from restaurant to restaurant, intent on letting someone else do the cooking for a change, only to walk into the ‘sorry, we’re all booked up’ signs in the front entrance of 95% of the restaurants that I wanted to eat at.
How is Christmas being received in Japan? Quite well. And just as convenient and efficient as ever. I do miss wrapping my own presents but having them wrapped for me, for free, does save a lot of time. It also prevents accidents from happening on the way home. Like encountering the present-receiver red-handed! Starbucks and Seattles are great for getting a hot, holiday beverage topped with whipped cream to sip at as I shop. And as soon as I find a shop selling marzipan (chocolate coated almond bar), I will be all set for the holiday season.