Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, although this year the Emperors birthday is celebrated on Christmas Eve (although it actually is the day before). But Christmas Day is a normal working day. As are the rest of the days of Christmas. In Japan, new year is the big holiday.
You could have fooled me, because the entire city is full of Christmas decorations. They go up the moment the Halloween decorations come down. Literally. The stores change from one set of decorations from when they close in the evening to when they open in the morning. Sometimes the staff will literally work through the night to get all the decorations in place by morning.
The Christmas Gift Shops
About 10% of all Japanese are Christians. But close to 100% of all Japanese do some Christmas shopping. The idea of buying gifts for their loved ones has penetrated the Japanese traditions and almost every store puts up decorations to entice people to buy Christmas gifts. Of course it has not yet reached the level of giving that you see in Europe, to say nothing about buying and giving gifts in the US. But that only makes the merchants try harder.
Toddler Christmas Shopping
Children in Japan are as eager as children anywhere to get a visit from Santa, although there are very few houses with chimneys and even fewer with mantles on which to hang socks. But if they have been bsd, it is not Santa who will be coming, giving them gifts. It is the Black Santa, who takes their toys away.
Do They Really Eat Cake For Christmas?
When KFC launched in Japan, they did not have a market. The Japanese style karaage is fried chicken but in a different size, without bones and in smaller pieces. But not too many customers made their way to the restaurants, not because they were sceptical of fried chicken or did not like it, but because there was no special reason to eat it.
So the KFC management, the story goes, decided to launch their fried chicken as a Christmas food. Nobody in Japan at the time celebrated Christmas, but people were starting to discover it. In a country which at the time was coming out of a period of occupation and American rule, there was an audience hungry for something different - literally. And so fried chicken became a fixture on the Japanese christmas table.
The other traditional Christmas food, and the reason strawberries is a spring berry in Japan, is the Christmas cake. In a country where the ground freezes only on the northern island of Hokkaido, you can start growing things in hothouses already in December.
That is exactly how the strawberries in Japan are grown. We have been picking strawberries in Tochigi, where there are more hours of sunlight than anywhere in Japan. Tochigi gets rnough sunlight that they can grow strawberries in vinyl hothouses in the middle of winter. And some strawberries they are! Juicy, full of flavor from the first to the last bite, crunchy yet soft with a deep red color, sweet yet tart with a tinge of sourness. These may be the best strawberries in the world. And then, they put them on cakes and eat them on Christmas eve.
Watching The Christmas Lights
Christmas The most important Christmas activity in Japan is window shopping. Since Japanese really have no Christmas tradition of gathering and sharing gifts, gift-giving recipients are either romantic partners or children. Santa is kept very busy in Japan, where parents traditionally have had a hard time saying no to their kids. But stores for grownups are kept as busy as the toystores, although many if most customers buy things for themselves rather than children.
The most attractive things are not in the stores but outside, however. December in Japan is almost balmy and the sun sets around 4 PM, so it is pretty nice to take a walk (although you may want to wear a jacket). The child in the stroller will want a blanket. But then, walking around Tokyo to see the Christmas lights is a fun experience. Here are some of the places that were nice last year.
They call them Christmas illumination, by the way, but they will normally stay until February (when the spring decor with cherry blossoms take over). If you are pressed for time you can go to Maronouchi or Tokyo Dome. If you go to Tokyo Dome your kids will demand that they get on the rides, so make it a full day. There are several kids rides that are open to kids under 5. Under 4 even.
Christmas Market Cheer
Tokyo has embraced Christmas markets (and Oktoberfests), but they are nothing like what they were before the 2007 financial chrisis.
But there still are Christmas markets in Roppongi and Hibuya Park. They tend to be mock-Bavarian although the band playing German schlagers does a credible job of molesting "Living Next Door To Alice" (Alice? Who The F*ck Is Alice?). If that sounds mysterious, just picture yourself after a few glasses of gluhwein with a few stollen in your stomach listening to a parody of German music (99 Luftballons). And trying to convince your kids they do not want painted wooden toys.
The Christmas markets may have gotten smaller and fewer but gluhwein is slowly working itself into the Japanese consciousness as the preferred Christmas drink. In Maronouchi it has to compete with the champagne stands. But the Christmas celebrations still feel a bit lost in Tokyo, especially since the Christmas holidays are ordinary working days for most people.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.