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Japan: Christmas
The Japanese have no spiritual or religious basis for Christmas. While in the west there is a slight (though increasingly inscrutable) pretense towards a celebration of the birth of Christ, and years of tradition of families gathering, here in Japan the holiday is completely imported, and largely market driven.

mobile XMas
December 25: my mobile phone wallpaper changed to Merry Christmas
My Christmas experience here started with music. Early December, every store was heard playing Christmas music. English-language Christmas music. And not just Bing Crosby roasting mistletoe in an open sleigh, but in the low-rent Korean grocer in Shitamachi, I heard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the trance remix. This was the touchstone moment; after which the even more peppy versions of songs that meant family and tradition that I heard as I was shopping for rice balls in over-lit convenience stores fit readily into my holiday.

Everywhere in Tokyo were sidewalk stands with young ladies selling white-frosted strawberry-festooned Christmas Cakes ("kurisumasu kehki"). Christmas sales abounded at the large department stores; people were urged to buy and to give.
la la port performance
Click for a blowup and you'll see they were touching their ears at this point in the song.
The Christmas Spirit was not all commerce however, some of the Christmas festivities were participatory family fun. In early December at the LaLaPort mega-mall outside of Tokyo (right next to the indoor ski-slope), there was a Christmas stage set up and a Gaijin performer was leading a large crowd of Japanese folks in a rousing rendition of "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Knees and Toes" in English.

Ayako's friend Tamayo had made a reservation for two at the "Kurisumasu Dina Korusu" at Utamaro. Then Tamayo's boyfriend decided to spend Christmas at the Akasaka Prince Hotel with an old flame instead. Actually, Ayako pointed out that Japan lacks a familial-Christmas tradition; so many folks take the opportunity to pair off and visit Love Hotels together. Certainly Uguisudani was full up Christmas Eve.
Christmas Tree Man
One young man celebrates Christmas Day dressed up as a Holiday Tree in front of sex stores in Shinjuku.
So Ayako and I took up the reservation, holiday dinner in a private room in a maze carved out of dark gray plaster on the sixth floor of a building in Yurakucho (which means "pleasure district" I believe). The hallways were decorated with the silent spooky mannequin figures of mendicant Buddhist monks, and the glass walls were painted with Enthusiast Buddhist Aphorisms in English, like "with discipline one can change oneself, and then the world." Ayako wasn't impressed with the decor; she expressed a fondness for more traditional Japan. It certainly wasn't Christmas. The food was a hodgepodge; not quite the elegance and wonder of the elaborate Japanese Kaiseki; just six courses of pasta and fish and pork - as Ayako said, "futsuu" (average).

Light up the Ginza

Afterwards we wandered the Ginza, Tokyo's shopping district fashionable decades ago and now just solid wealthy.
Happy XMas from the Ginza Bagpiper.
Amidst the couples strolling about, a white man in a kilt played the bagpipes for money, and a whole bunch of people dressed up as Santa rode loud motorcycles and open convertibles down the large boulevard making their own public Christmas cheer. Near the Sony building, a large group of Japanese brass instrument players in Santa hats belted out Christmas hits with exuberance and uneven tempo.

We stood in front of the Ginza Christmas tree, provided each year by the Mitsukoshi(?) department store. This was not as wonderfully gaudy as the Dolphin-and-fish-surrounded Christmas tree at the Odaiba mall. As we stood before it, the lights all went out, and a single light from far above lit the tree as though it was being visited by an alien craft. Then only the blue lights lit up, then only the red, then the red and the blue, then all the lights went out - each of these changes was accompanied by loud and enthusiast "Oohs!" by the crowd. Little animatronic angels danced as a small tired-looking animatronic Santa gestured below the tree.

Ginza Onlookers
Odaiba Dolphin Tree
Odaiba Tree
I saw a Christmas tree decorated with large neon dolphins, fish and hearts. I didn't see any nativity scenes.
I wanted to head to the FCCJ because they were having a seasonal special on EggNog, a sort of Christmas tradition and good for the end of the night. The bar there was closed. On Sunday, I visited the FCCJ and they were having a Ukulele Christmas Party. I wandered into a score of middle aged Japanese ladies wearing Hawaiian shirts and plastic lays, tuning up their ukuleles in the middle of the afternoon. Henry Scott-Stokes was so astonished by the spectacle as to be nearly stuttering.

We went hunting EggNog in central Tokyo to no avail, so Ayako took us to the Lion beer garden in the Ginza, and beneath magnificent tiles and mosaics we drank in the company of many smoking drinking Japanese folks.

That was Christmas Eve, which seemed to be some sort of National Holiday. Perhaps Christmas; seemingly not connected with the Emperor's Birthday the day before. Tuesday, Christmas Day, everyone went back to work. But not just work, work with cheer. In addition to all of these festivities, companies throw Christmas or holiday parties. This strikes me as the most understandable phenomenon; just before the family/traditional holidays surrounding New Year's Day there is a chance for people in the corporate family to go a little bit crazy. It's a natural outgrowth of a wish to celebrate good cheer at the beginning of the winter season.

Tasting Turkey

I was invited to one holiday party; a combination of my work for and my friendship with a stimulating Japanese-American family. I wandered around their neighborhood Komazawa until I saw video being projected on the ceiling. Inside many well-dressed Japanese folks who worked with technology and spoke English were eating excellent food, drinking a bit, and listening to "Christmas time in Hollis Queens", and other Christmas favourites spun by a bilingual Japanese DJ who finally lost his patience with Frank Sinatra and started playing PigBag.

Joi and Mimi baked a turkey which was perhaps my pinnacle sensory Christmas connection, as my sainted Mother cooks a kick-ass turkey each year and this was threatening to be my first year without that sort of flavour at the end of the year. They did a darn good job, especially considering it's the first time I've ever seen turkey in this country. I asked Joi, Why don't Japanese folks eat turkey? "Because their ovens aren't big enough." That was a forehead slapper.

dango girls!
For the Christmas party, I brought Dango from the markets near Okachimachi station as a Shitamachi treat. The girls who sold me the Dango were pretty enthusiastic!

DJ Joi
Besides cooking turkey, Joi tries his fast hands on the turntables.

Kid Time
The chance to play with little kids gave the day a Christmas feeling.

party shoes
Can you judge a group of people in a building in Japan by the shoes they leave at the door? Go ahead.

In the past, Christmas has been a chance to see my family, in a certain themed environment. Christmas in the midwest of America is turkey, and choirs singing, and trudging through the snow and biting wind, and candles. And couches, sitting around, opening presents, talking. The distance between the urban Japanese Christmas and the Christmas I remember from Chicago is not much different than the distance between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ.

Japan | trip | life

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