Tag Archives: Christmas

Shop til you drop

new year decoration1Christmas 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.

new year shop entranceTraditionally, 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.

109 salesYesterday 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.




I love living in Tokyo, and after the heat of the summer I always look forward to the chill in the air as autumn arrives, to crisp days of blue skies and bright sunshine, to the vivid yellow ginkgo leaves and the flaming red maples.

autumn colours kamiyacho

But there is also something heavy in my heart, I suppose it’s the end of the year and I’m running on empty, but there’s still lots to do. It’s the season of 年末年始 or ‘nen matsu nen shi’, the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

It’s time to buy New Year cards and the special stamps to stick on them, to check with the people you usually send cards whether they have been bereaved this year, in which case, no card for them. It would be inappropriate to send them a ‘Happy New year’ greeting. If you have been bereaved in the past year, the onus is actually on you to send out a different kind of card to pre-empt the sending of New Year cards, reminding or informing people that you are in mourning and therefore not sending or receiving cards this year. I have found that people often just mention it in passing instead of sending the cards, but if you do send the cards then there are special postage stamps for them, too. I have bought my New Year cards, I have bought the special stamps (2014 being the year of the horse, so the stamps have little cartoon horses on them), and I have asked around to see who should not receive a card, so I’m all ready, I just have to write them all now.

new year stamps 2014

It’s also the bonenkai season (忘年会), time for a year-end party at work or with friends. Sometimes in English these social occasions get called Christmas party or dinner, but it’s dinner and/or drinks with friends, it’s the end of the year, it’s a bonenkai. Of course, this also means that there will be more passengers on the evening trains who have been drinking, and so there is a poster in Metro stations:

drunk on platform poster‘Ah! Dangerous! Take care on days when you have drunk too much alcohol,’ the poster warns. While it also mentions that walking and texting is dangerous, it helpfully informs us that 63.5% of people who fall off the platform have been drinking. This goofy poster is apparently part of a drive to have no ‘platform incidents’.

tokyo tower

Christmas is all over Tokyo. Well, Christmas trees, various assorted Santas and reindeer, and adverts for large buckets of chicken followed by strawberry shortcake, the perfect Christmas dinner, brought to you by KFC and 7-eleven. Really. This photo was taken at Tokyo Tower, you can just see the bottom of one of the legs. Think Eiffel Tower, painted red and white. There is an enormous Christmas tree under the tower, and a kind of winding maze of plastic illuminated reindeer, and when I walked past a couple of weeks ago there were a lot of high school girls wandering amongst the reindeer. An instant bucolic idyll, 21st-century Tokyo-style.  Just across the road was this display, angels heralding an office building.

shiba decorations

There are Christmas carols everywhere; my local shopping street has been playing them over the loudspeaker system for a while now. It’s rather odd, and always reminds me of The Prisoner, I feel I am being forced into Christmas early, and all the cutesy, jingly versions of songs and carols are quite surreal. Equally surreal will be the speed with which it all vanishes by December 26th to be replaced by New Year decorations.

So boo, it’s almost the end of the year, and there is still so much to do. Time to finish up the term at school, get all the paperwork finished. Time to do Christmas shopping and write cards (and then New Year cards). Time to pack a suitcase and head back to the UK for a fortnight. So much to do before that. It’s enough to make you feel so exhausted you might fall asleep on someone on the train . . . but that would be inconsiderate, so the latest manner poster addresses it:

manner poster sleepingI do love living in Tokyo. In late autumn and winter the days are usually bright and sunny. I can see Mount Fuji from the train and I’m surrounded by the vibrant colours of Mother Nature’s last hurrah before she hunkers down to wait for spring. It’s good to spend time with friends celebrating the end of another year, it’s good to look forward to travelling. I just wish I had maybe a week or two more and a bit more energy.

Walking through Shibuya station yesterday evening I saw a Buddhist monk standing in the midst of all the commuters. People were rushing about, and in the middle of it all he stood praying and waiting for alms. Just standing there while rush hour carried on around him. Part of Shibuya station is pretty much a construction site at the moment, so there’s the added chaos that brings. He was just standing there, doing his thing, and I thought again, I do love Tokyo.

monk in shibuya

メリークリスマス*: Being festive, Tokyo-style

Although it is still more than ten days to Christmas, I am posting this now, because tomorrow I am flying back to the UK for a fortnight and don’t know if I’ll be able to post anything while I’m there. I have been enjoying Advent; the waiting and the anticipation, but I have also been caught up in a storm of marking, end-of-term work and Christmas shopping. Now I have finished all my work, and I’m kind-of-packed, so I thought I’d sit down and post something.

Mid-December in Tokyo doesn’t feel like mid-December in Europe; the skies are blue almost every day, the leaves are red and yellow, and the temperature is around 10 degrees during the day, falling to around 2 or 3 degrees during the night.

gingko 3               Maple

Of course, Christmas is all around. That is, if Christmas to you means the same as it does to my local stores; a bucket of KFC chicken and a synthetic-looking strawberry shortcake from the 7-eleven; if your local church thinks that the perfect way to decorate the building is to do this:

christmas tree 2

Why is the cross zooming off into space? Why does that say ‘Christmas’?

My neighbours have got in on the action too, with a great variety of flashing lights on their veranda. These are the same neighbours who in summer think that if one wind chime producing a light tinkling sound is relaxing then six lined up in a row will surely amplify the relaxation, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. I’m just glad I don’t have to pay their electricity bill.

So what does Christmas mean to most Japanese people? Although people in Japan would identify predominantly as Buddhist or Shinto, there are probably between one and two million Christians of different denominations. However, there are a lot of well-known schools and universities that were founded by missionaries in the 19th century, so while there are not many people calling themselves Christian there are far more who were educated at Christian schools and so attended services or studied the Bible. In addition, Christian-style weddings held in hotels are popular; the white dress, the ‘minister’ (not always an ordained person, it could be a random foreign resident playing dress-up for his part-time job), and the chapel. I think most Japanese people have some idea what it’s all about.

However, knowing what the meaning of Christmas is and choosing how to celebrate it are quite different. In Japan, Christmas Eve is THE date night of the year. Tokyo Tower is a popular spot, with it’s twinkly lights and romantic photo opportunities. This year, Christmas Eve will be a national holiday, since December 23rd is the Emperor’s birthday and, falling on a Sunday, it gets moved to the Monday. Christmas Day will be an ordinary working day, but ask people what Christmas Day dinner should be and you will get the answer: ‘chicken’. Well done, KFC, you have quite masterfully convinced a whole country that Christmas equals vast amounts of deep-fried gristle and little pots of sweetcorn and mashed potato, or whatever it is that you sell. The persuasive campaign starts the same way every year; the Colonel Sanders mannequin, dressed as Santa, outside the shop well before Christmas. Truly, the home of Christmas deliciousness.

And what of dessert? Santa wears red, Christmassy things are often red . . . strawberries are red! Let’s eat strawberries! But, I hear you protest, strawberries are summer fruit, in winter they will be watery and tasteless, and I say: yes. But they are red, and therefore Christmassy. Strawberry shortcake must be the perfect Christmas dessert, it’s red like Christmas and white with creamy snowy goodness. Since October, my local convenience stores have had information on the wall about the Christmas cakes you can order.

This is the stereotypical Japanese Christmas experience, the almost Disneyfication of an ancient  and sacred celebration but really, how many people in Europe and North America have the same approach as the Japanese?

Down the road from where I live, on Christmas Eve the local Anglican church will be packed to the rafters for the Midnight Eucharist. At school we have a nativity set, as we do every year. The crib is empty at the moment, of course, and this year I have not seen any inappropriate objects there; last year I removed a small purple dinosaur one day. We had Christmas carol practice yesterday, including my favourite original Japanese carol: Hallelujah Christmas. The title pleases me and it’s unlike any of the carols I grew up with.

Over the years I have heard foreign residents living here complain about Christmas Day being an ordinary working day, but really, that’s what it is. If you want to go to church, if you want to stop and  hear the Christmas message, you have to make the time for that yourself. You have to carve out a Christmas-shaped space in your life, because no one is going to declare a national holiday, close all the shops, shut down almost all public transport and make you stop. You have to do it yourself. I have always liked that, I like it being a conscious decision. If you end up with a Christmas that doesn’t suit you, you did that to yourself. The churches have services, the transport system if running, you can go where you want, do what you want; you just have to make a conscious decision to step out of your everyday routine and say, this day is special to me.

For now, though, it’s 10 days away. The 5 o’clock chimes have just reminded me it’s time to stop playing, so I shall end this post here and finish my packing. I wish everyone a special Christmas, one that suits you and has real meaning for you, whatever that may be.

nativity * メリークリスマス = Merry Christmas