25 Things I Learned about Christmas in Japan
To be honest, I wasn’t sure where to begin with a "Christmas in Japan" blog. Other people have written about Christmas in Japan extensively, and with more explanation and attention to detail than I have the bandwidth for. I’ve tried to break down my holiday season in Japan experience into 25 key points, facts, and observations that will hopefully go down a lot easier than basashi.
1. They don’t have the usual holiday staples.
This depends on your holiday staple foods, and the extent to which you’re willing to get them. Some are easier to track down than others, and others will require you to do a little holiday Macguyver-ing.
2. They don't have turkey.
Okay, this is sort of a lie. You can get turkey, but it’s not as easy as running to H-E-B and picking one up from the freezer section. You can find them at Costco, or you can order them online, but as you’d expect they’re very expensive. I went to a “Thanksgiving” party hosted by a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English, aka a local) in a neighboring town, and she’d graciously ordered a turkey for us foreigners. Of course, once she got it, she had no idea what to do with it, so she left it to my ALT friends to handle. Surely, the Americans who put so much importance in eating this big, ugly bird every year know exactly how to cook it to satisfy the requirements of this oddly-specific, food-based holiday?
Nope. My ALT friends had never cooked a turkey before in their lives. But with a little bit of Googling, it turned out beautiful.
3. They don’t have stuffing.
No Pepperidge Farm. Not even Stove Top. If you want stuffing (or dressing, if you’re not shoving it inside a bird) so badly, you’re going homemade on this one. Except there’s no cornbread or chorizo here, which means your homemade options are limited, and which also means you could very likely end up buying out the entire stock of your tiny inaka grocery store's bread section. Just ignore the odd looks you get from locals (depending on how “foreign” you look, you’ll get them all the time anyway).
I made this stuffing for a party, and it turned out pretty awesome. But cornbread stuffing is far superior.
4. You can get cranberry sauce, but…
I always make my own cranberry sauce. But if you’re looking for fresh cranberries in Japan, you may as well be looking for gold. If you’re lucky, you might find a can of Ocean Spray at a local import goods store. This year, you’re settling for the jelly loaf, and you’ll be thankful for it. On a side note, I bought a can of cranberry sauce and subsequently lost it. I've looked all over my tiny apartment for it, no sign of it. I'll probably find it when I move. And it will still be edible.
5. Instead of turkey, fried chicken is the highlight of the day.
In another life (at another job, long before I knew I'd actually spend a Christmas season in Japan), I wrote a blog on the phenomenon of having Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas. Nowadays this has been expanded from KFC to more Western-analogous roasted chickens, to pizza (?), but fried chicken is still the supreme king of Christmas.
6. So is cake.
Christmas cake, decoration cake, whatever you want to call it, it's the highlight of any strangely-diverse Japanese holiday foods spread. You're bound to see bakeries and convenience stores marketing their Christmas cakes, usually a light sponge cake frosted with whipped cream and delightfully decorated to look like a winter wonderland.
7. And speaking of Christmas cake…
There’s a saying here in Japan, and it’s not a nice one: “Women are like Christmas cake.” The idea is that, after December 25th (or in the woman’s case, their 25th birthday), no one wants them. It’s an expiration date set on women, and the clock is ticking before they go “bad.”
At 28, I’m well past the “prime” Christmas cake range. In fact, when I first got here, a local innocently asked for my age. When I told her, she waved her hand with a smile.
“That’s not too old yet!”
Yet? Ah, thank goodness! Even though my Best By date has passed, there’s still time for me to be scooped up, before I’m as good as trash!
Here’s the thing about cake: you can have it any time of the year. William and Kate serve slices of their wedding cake to people whenever Kate pops out another baby, and no one seems to care how old that cake is.
Anyway, we were talking about actual cake. It’s cute and sweet and covered with strawberries.
8. Those strawberries, though…
These beautiful little bastards are a gift from God. If you’re not a cake person, buy the strawberries on their own (and if you’re a regular Lady Godiva like me, top them with a bit of homemade whipped cream). Just try not to eat them all in one sitting. Or do – hey, I’m not your mom.
9. But on the subject of strawberries…
I lucked out the first time I ate a Japanese strawberry, because someone who came to that Thanksgiving party I mentioned earlier is married to the daughter of strawberry farmers. When I went to the supermarket the next day, I was surprised to find a dozen strawberries priced anywhere from $3-$5, sometimes more. I assume the hefty price tag is because God Himself descends from Heaven and kisses each berry before they can be shipped.
I’d still recommend them, since strawberry season is in a relatively narrow window.
10. At a holiday party, you’re bound to eat something not Christmas-y.
“Have you tried basashi before?”
I looked at the platter of red, thinly-sliced meat, not sure of what I was looking at.
“I resisted eating it for the first two years that I was here. But I finally tried it, and I was surprised at how much I liked it. Now, I can’t get enough.” Aaron is a former ALT. He's married to a local and has two kids. He's more or less assimilated.
“What is it?”
I’m not one to judge the culinary repertoire of other countries. In fact, America is one of the few first-world countries where people don’t eat horse meat. Apparently it’s quite good for you. But as someone from the American South, I’ve practically grown up alongside horses.
But 2018 is all about pushing my boundaries and trying new things – and nothing I’ve tried since I got here is more boundary-pushing than this.
“Sure,” I say, scenes from every Western simultaneously playing out in my head, “I’ll try a bite.”
Aaron hands me the dipping vessel, soy sauce with a bit of grated ginger mixed in, and I grab a bite of basashi with my chopsticks. After dredging the meat, I take a bite. The flavor isn’t completely off-putting – horse meat is very lean yet surprisingly tender – but there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that keeps me from fully enjoying it. With each chew, I can see the hooves of this great beast thundering across the plains of the American Southwest and into my mouth.
“How is it?” Aaron asks me, watching my expression.
“I think one bite is enough for me,” I say, my tone drooping. “I think I’m just too Texan for this. I can taste the yeehaw.”
Trying new things doesn’t always lead to a lifestyle change – sometimes it takes trying new things to know what you don’t like.
11. Christmas is actually two holidays.
My friend Ella in Beppu clued me in on a Christmas fireworks display happening this month. “Why is it happening on two nights?” “December 23rd is ‘Family Night’, and December 24th is ‘Lover’s Night’,” she explained. It might seem a bit weird to split one holiday into two, but it makes sense if you really think about it.
12. It's a holiday for families and friends…
"Family Night" is not only for married couples with children, but also for the lonely Grinches (like me) who don't want to subject themselves to being around affectionate couples but still want to get into the holiday spirit (aka see some fireworks, eat some food, maybe get a little drunk). Perfect.
13. …And a holiday for lovers.
Valentine's Day (and White Day) are more geared towards teenagers and younger people, giving each other really simple gifts of homemade chocolate. Christmas in Japan, as far as I can tell, is the adult version of Valentine’s Day, a chance for couples to spend money on each other buying gifts and going out for fancy dinners. 2018 is my first Christmas as a single woman in a half-decade. Go figure.
14. Traditional gifts are food and wine for friends…
Around late-November, the supermarkets started to fill with neatly-packaged boxes of high-end food and drink. Some of them, like the fancy assortments of high-end chocolates, make a little more sense to me, while others, like the top-quality cuts of meat I spotted recently, make less sense. To each their own, I guess.
15. …Candy and snacks for kids…
I’ve also seen stockings and gift bags for kids popping up alongside the adult-geared gifts. Most of them are decorated with cartoon characters and filled with chocolate and other little snacks. Compared to the American tradition of scrambling to Target or Walmart to buy whatever hot new bullshit toy kids are demanding that they’ll get tired of in a month, it seems almost… simpler.
16. …and jewelry for your girlfriend.
This is the one caveat in the "Japan doesn't go big with Christmas gifts" thing. Japan is very big on giving “temporary” gifts, like food and drink, to work associates and platonic friends, but Christmas is a chance to give a more permanent gift (aka, something you can’t eat) to a romantic partner. I'm not much of a jewelry person, anyway. At least, that's what I tell myself.
17. Christmas music is EVERYWHERE.
It’s not any different than in the States – after working lots of seasonal jobs during the holidays I still have a fight or flight response to hearing “Frosty the Snowman.” It’s just funny to hear all these familiar songs in such a familiar place. By December 1st, I’d already lost Whamageddon. Not that I’m complaining – “Last Christmas” is an absolute banger.
18. …And it's not all good.
I’ve learned to love the incomprehensible renditions of Christmas classics I hear everywhere I go. There’s no one to blame here – speaking in another language is hard enough, let alone singing in another language. Thankfully there’s a surprisingly-big backlog of Japanese Christmas songs to entertain me if I’m tired of hearing covers of “Last Christmas.”
19. There's Christmas lights everywhere you go.
I love Christmas lights. As a kid I loved driving through neighborhoods and looking at the decorations in front of every house. “Illuminations” are all over Japanese cities in the winter. Surrounded by colorful, twinkling lights, bundled up in a thick winter coat, I feel festive as hell.
20. Christmas isn’t an automatic holiday.
It’s not the case 100% of the time, but many companies in America give you Christmas Day off. In Japan, Christmas is a workday just like any other. Still, if you’re a foreigner, you’re almost expected to take the day off from work (which is exactly what I’ll be doing).
21. If you're a foreigner, you're expected to be really into Christmas…
You may as well put on some pointy ears and call yourself one of Santa's elves. Everyone asks me questions about what Christmas is like, wants me to talk about it, wants me to lead the class in a sing-along of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and tell them all about my wonderful holiday traditions.
22. …even if you're not.
Holidays weren't exactly magical for me as a kid. I spent most of them with my dad’s side of the family. Since I was the designated “black sheep” of the nieces and nephews, I didn't get along well with my cousins, so I spent most holidays trying to avoid them in a quiet wing of my grandparents' big house.
Then, overnight, my dad was out of the picture. And so was that entire side of the family. From then on, my mom and I spent our holidays bouncing around and infiltrating other already-established get-togethers – distant cousins twice-removed, divorcees and widowers, boyfriends. I spent Christmases for the last five years with my ex’s family, but those memories have since been soured.
Last year was the worst Christmas of my life. I won't get into the details, but it was the catalyst for a lot of the terrible things that happened to me early in the year. So my expectations coming into Christmas 2018 have been less than ideal.
All the same, I've put on the mask of "the foreigner who loves Christmas" for the sake of appearances. My apartment is decorated, and I play Christmas music in the evenings. Christmas is a magical time – I’m determined to convince myself of that.
23. You're expected to go back to where you're from to celebrate with your family.
“Will you go back to America for Christmas?”
I have no idea how many people have asked me that since it started to get cold. I usually politely answer with “Oh no, it’s very expensive, but I’m excited to try Christmas in Japan!” It’s not a completely dishonest answer, but it also covers up the fact that there’s not a lot for me to go back to.
I don’t have a big family – obviously my mom is in America, but there’s no idyllic Norman Rockwell multi-generational family gathering I’m missing out on, and I don’t have anyone to kiss under the mistletoe this year. I don’t have children to spoil with gifts, unless you count my dog, who I’ve definitely bought Christmas sweaters for in years past.
It’s hard to reconcile what Christmas is “supposed” to be, and what Christmas actually is. I keep telling myself none of these things are a big deal, and most of the time it’s not a problem. But for one month of the year, it sure feels like one.
24. But in the end, it's all about the people you spend it with.
England. New Zealand. Mexico. Brazil. The Philippines. All over America. The nature of being a foreigner in Japan is that you’ll often find yourself in the company of foreigners from all over the globe. I’m not just engaging in a cultural exchange with the people of Japan, I’m also participating in a cultural exchange with all the other non-Japanese people I’ve found here. I've been to two holiday parties so far, and I have a third one ahead of me. And we're all going to sit around eating fried chicken and cake and maybe have a little wine. And I'm looking forward to it.
25. And the mindset.
"You get out what you put in."
Admittedly, I'm not great at following my own advice. And as difficult as the holidays often are for me, it's hard for me to not fall into despair. But instead of dwelling on the things I don’t have, I want to be thankful for what I do have this year. I have a roof over my head, and enough money to pay the bills. I have friends scattered across the prefecture, ready and willing to spend time with me. I can’t guarantee that 2019 will be the year where I turn my life around. I’ve been making that promise to myself year after year, and I’m tired of making promises I can’t keep and kicking myself for it later.
I’m making small, incremental changes to myself and my life, day by day. And if I keep going, maybe I can have a merry Christmas after all.