Christmas is a largely commercial affair in Japan. Of course, there are plenty of decorations put up, and that starts in November, but I don’t expect it is truly celebrated by anyone except the 1% of the population which is Christian. However, I would say that people enjoy it, in the same way they enjoy Valentine’s Day or Hallowe’en. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year, and through some very clever marketing many Japanese people are convinced that a bucket of fried chicken from KFC and strawberry shortcake from the local convenience store are the perfect dinner on the 25th. Japanese people generally don’t exchange Christmas presents, and by the morning of the 26th all the decorations are gone, soon to be replaced with the traditional Shinto New Year decorations. For anyone newly-arrived in Japan, this sudden absence of all things Christmassy can be a shock, especially for someone feeling a little homesick and still getting used to the idea that December 25th is just another working day.
For Japanese people, the big celebration is New Year (正月). As shops shut down just before the end of the year, they put up New Year signs on their doors and kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) on either side of the entrance.
Traditionally, shops and other businesses didn’t open on the first three days (or sometimes more) of the new year, but every year more and more is open even on January 1st. As I did last year, I spent some time on New Year’s Day walking a 7 lucky gods pilgrimage, and was surprised at how much was open. Who wants to go to McDonald’s on New Year’s Day? The answer is, a surprising number of people. I enjoyed starting the year walking to shrines and temples, and this year walked with a friend, which was far more fun than doing it alone. She said her prayers at each stop, which made me slow down a little, and not just check off each one along the way and move on to the next one. It reminded me of what the route really was for. Last year I started earlier and so didn’t see so many people, but this year we waited in line several times. Since I had already blogged about it I decided to do something different and posted on Facebook as I arrived at each temple or shrine, but if you would like to read about it, here is the link to last year’s post:
Having spent January 1st in a very traditional way, I spent the afternoon of January 2nd in a way more recognisable to my students as a New Year tradition: the sales. January (or these days, end-of-December) sales are not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. In many countries one of the first things people want to do after Christmas is go to the shops to return or exchange gifts and spend money or gift tokens they have been given. As I already mentioned, Japanese people don’t exchange Christmas gifts, but anyone under twenty can look forward to receiving otoshidama (お年玉) at New Year. These are small envelopes containing money; gifts from parents, grandparents and other relatives. Many young people save all they are given, the reckless few spend it all, but often there is a compromise; they save some and they spend some.
Shops re-open on January 2nd or a little later and are hoping that some of this New Year money is coming their way. For high school girls, there are two places which are a kind of mecca on any day of the year; Takeshita Dori (竹下通り) in Harajuku, and the 109 building in Shibuya. Yesterday I went shopping with someone visiting Tokyo, and we decided to go to the mothership, Shibuya 109. Before I went, someone told me they thought I was crazy even thinking about going there on January 2nd, but we were on a shopping mission, and nowhere else would do.
Yesterday was the first day of the ‘7 days bargain’ and in the early afternoon it was absolutely packed. The noise levels were excruciating and there were personnel everywhere guiding people along, particularly near the escalators. There are eight floors, and each one is a collection of different shops. The escalators form the centre of the building, so the best way to see everything is to go up the escalator, then walk all the way round to see what you can find. Every shop was selling lucky bags or fukubukuro (福袋), sealed bags containing a variety of items. These bags are not cheap, most of the ones I saw yesterday started at ¥10,000, but you know that the value of the contents is more than that, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. At places like the Apple store you might get an iPad or a Macbook, and so some really determined people will camp out the night before (or maybe even longer) to ensure that they get their hands on such a bargain.
Back to the 109 building. Not only was every shop selling lucky bags, but there was at least one person, usually a young woman, shouting to attract attention. The crowds, the loud music, the screeching . . . you have no idea. We went up an escalator, round the floor, up the next escalator, round the next floor . . . we were on a mission for footwear, and so I can tell you that there are very few shops selling only shoes and boots. I think we found three. There was one on the first floor, one around the third or fourth floor, and one right at the top on the eighth.
It was an experience. The feeling of having all my senses bombarded was amazing, the only other time I have felt that was when someone took me into a pachinko parlour years ago, but this was even more extreme because of the crowds. Having successfully found something to buy, we headed straight down the escalators and emerged, gasping for air, into the afternoon sunshine. The Shibuya 109 building. Not for the faint-hearted.