In Japan, Christmas is a little underrated. It is less than two weeks away, and it’s definitely not beginning to look a lot like Christmas here. Sure, there are some lights up, and a smattering of Christmas decorations for sale, but for the most part Christmas in Japan is nothing like I remember it…
For example, apparently all Americans eat KFC for Christmas. This I did not know, or somehow must have forgotten on that long plane ride across the ocean. I remember this thing called “turkey,” but it must’ve been a mere dream – nobody here knows of its existence. We considered going with the flow and pre-ordering our KFC Christmas dinner a month in advance (it is, after all, about as close to turkey as we’re going to get), but in the end we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.
Another different thing about Christmas here, is that it’s meant for couples. Kind of like Valentines Day in North America, everyone wants a date on Christmas. I’ve discovered a socially safe way to find out if an acquaintance has a significant other, or significant person of interest, is to ask them if they have any plans for Christmas. Couples will often buy each other not chocolates, flowers or cute stuffed animals, but a strawberry Christmas cake. The “Christmas Hotel” is not where you go to have breakfast with Santa, but an infamous “love hotel” in Osaka – where presents are “unwrapped” year round. New Year’s, rather, is the big family holiday here, so it’s kind of the reverse of what I’m accustomed to.
There are things I definitely don’t miss about Christmas – like the frenzied, overcrowded malls and materialistic insanity – but there are things I will miss for sure: the first snow, the festive spirit, the turkey stuffing, the real Christmas trees, the time with family, and the awareness of the meaning behind it all.
I did get to hint at the origin of Christmas a little bit in class, as we have been teaching some of the students “Silent Night.” My Japanese teacher was translating the lyrics, and when she asked if anyone knew who the “Holy Infant” was, one student eventually volunteered, “Iesu Kuristo,” which is how they say his name here. My teacher then responded, “yes, and did you know that’s how people swear in English?” And… fail.
With this dearth of holiday spirit in mind, last weekend we went to Osaka in search of a little Christmas. First stop: the German Christmas Market. Now we are actually Canadian, but I’m a quarter German and Jordan is three quarters, which means between the two of us we make one whole German. And that German was rejoicing immensely when we indulged in Bratwurst, fresh Ham and onion bunwiches, spiced wine in a glass boot, and German donuts – all of these things made at least in part by real, live, imported Germans (except the glass boots, they explicitly said “made in China”). It’s a pretty sweet gig actually, they come to Japan for four months or so each year, to help run the market booths alongside Japanese staff. And not all of them were German – I bought a Peruvian scarf from a Japanese-Brazilian guy and a hand-painted Russian babushka doll of Winnie the Pooh (Canadian!) from a Ukrainian guy. The small taste of multiculturalism made me feel just as warm and fuzzy inside as the Christmas atmosphere – both are pretty hard to come by here.
After the German Christmas Market, we wandered around central Osaka for awhile, checked out the narrow, kimchi-abundant alleyways of Tsuruhashi (Korean Town), and then investigated the so-called American fashions of America Mura (“America Village”). We then topped off our explorations with a glorious trip to the Hard Rock Café, where I got my fill of the foods I’ve been most craving – namely, a deliciously epic salad and mashed potatoes with gravy.
Finally, our last stop of the evening was the Christmas light “illumination.” We were there on the first night of this year’s illumination, and so expected to see everything lit up when we emerged from the Hard Rock Café, which was after the designated light-up time of 5:00 pm, but there was nothing. Since a lot of other people seemed to be loitering, waiting for something, we figured it must be delayed for some reason, so we found a ledge from which to watch the show. And by the show, I mean the chaos of car after car trying to park on the side of a very busy, no-parking street, in order to await the lights – each playing some trick like acting nonchalant, pretending to look at a map or for directions, and then being told by a security cop that they can’t park there. Some people will just pretend the security cop said nothing, while others will be very agreeable, then drive ahead one block and stop again.
It was all very comical, yet we still wondered why there were so many security guards, police, and staff in yellow reflective jackets. This became clear when the lights finally came on, an hour and a half late: everyone, cameras in hand, began wandering into the middle of the very busy, major street to take photos. Every single staff was occupied with trying to usher people out of harm’s way, but as I learned long ago from growing up in Vancouver, you simply can’t reason with a camera-equipped Japanese tourist. So what could we do but join them, and take our own pictures from the middle of the illuminated road!
After that it was back to Yokkaichi, back to our apartment with our fake 3-foot Christmas tree and our dimly lit neighbourhood. The trip definitely helped lift my Christmas-deprived spirit a little, but I’m not gonna lie, it will be a challenge to stay in good spirits this season, as we’re so far away from family, food, and almost everything that makes Christmas, Christmas. Not everything though: Iesu (Jesus)’s birthday will be celebrated by at least two people in the little town of Sakura… and he might not want to stay in the “Christmas hotel,” but there’s plenty of room in our inn.