Christmas in Japan
They celebrate Christmas in Japan, but it’s nothing you get the day off work for. People tend to save up their holiday ya-yas for New Years, when everything shuts down for a week.
Christmas is akin to Valentine’s Day in Japan (they celebrate a weird version of Valentine’s Day as well, but that’s a whole other story). On Christmas Eve, young couples go out to dinner and exchange gifts. You’ll see Colonel Sanders mannequins dressed as Santa Claus outside of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants across the country, as fried chicken and strawberry shortcake are the arbitrarily designated Christmas foods of Japan. I sometimes wondered if Japanese people actually believed that Santa Claus and Colonel Sanders was the same person- as if Santa had a hopping chicken business he tended to the other 364 days a year, leaving the busy work to the elves.
I never bothered flying home for the holidays during my three-year government contract in Kyoto. I hated Christmas and it was a horrible time to travel, so why spend $1500 on a plane ticket when I wasn’t going to get any paid time off for it? I spent three consecutive Christmases in Japan, and each was special in its own way.
Christmas, 2002. I flew back from a luxurious week long excursion to Thailand on Christmas morning and went straight to work from the airport. On my way home I picked up a chicken breast at the grocery store (turkey doesn’t seem to appear in grocery stores outside of the U.S.) which I ate with gravy by myself in my tiny studio apartment, surrounded by various knickknacks I’d picked up at the Chiang Mai night market, pretending they were Christmas presents. I then proceeded to run to the bathroom, thanks to some exciting gastrointestinal bacteria I’d picked up in Bangkok.
Christmas, 2003. I had a Japanese boyfriend now, and was very excited to celebrate a traditional Japanese-style Christmas with him. I made him “American Food” (tacos), and we watched the “Underwear Gnomes” episode of “South Park” (I was trying to explain American humor to him, but he didn’t think it was funny). We constructed a Christmas cake together, using cake layers, strawberries and whipped cream from the grocery store. He claimed his experience laying concrete at his landscaping job transferred to expertise at frosting cakes. He bought speakers for my computer as a Christmas present, and we canoodled to the White Stripes before getting drunk at his favorite bar. We broke up after New Year’s, after he told me I reminded him too much of his mother.
Christmas, 2004. I was a swinging single, and had planned an exciting three-week vacation to sunny Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, a big bang Christmas vacation to finish off the third year of my contract. I woke up the morning of my departure, had a drink of water, and began projectile vomiting. I went to see a gastrointestinal specialist who told me I was “fine” and showed me photos from his recent vacation to Sydney. I threw up on myself on the bus ride home, got off and took a cab to a real hospital. They told me I had stomach flu, stuck an IV in my arm and told me I’d be missing my non-refundable flight and three week vacation. I returned home and alternated crying and puking. I was stuck in Japan with nothing to do for three weeks, all my friends had gone home for the holidays, and was wasting a huge chunk of my carefully budgeted vacation time, and was feeling very sorry for myself. A day later I felt fine again, but it was too late.
This may sound cheesy, but being stranded and alone in Japan for the holidays really made me appreciate Christmas in a way I never had before. I spent a lot of those three weeks walking around in the cold, stopping in coffee shops for hot drinks, and looking at the decorative Christmas trees that shops and hotels put up, taking comfort in the tinsel and sparkling lights and corny music that offered a little cheery brightness and reminded me of home. I sat shivering on the steps of Kyoto station, the monstrous glass and steel home of the Shinkansen bullet train, staring in wonder at the 22 meter-high Christmas tree erected in the middle of the station, ablaze with colored lights. I sipped a café au lait from the Café Du Monde stall (yes, the same one as in New Orleans, which is for some reason a franchise in Japan), while Christmas music played on a seemingly endless loop. I was deeply amused to hear Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” the theme song for a film about prisoners of war in a Javanese prison camp, sandwiched between “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.”
It sure as hell wasn’t an Australian beach, but sitting there filled me with meditative solitude and peace, taking simple pleasure in the shiny niceties of Christmas in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid. The same holiday schmaltz that had once filled me with irritation or indifference now gave me the hope to carry on during what had threatened to be most depressing Christmas of my life.
I actually enjoyed those three weeks. I dressed up on Christmas Eve, took myself out for a nice dinner and went drinking at a rock n’ roll bar where the dreadlocked owner let me pick out David Bowie LPs to listen to. I bought myself my first iPod and rode my bike around the deserted city backstreets at night, listening to my favorite music. And I wandered around drinking coffee and looking at Christmas trees. And that was good enough.