Living in Japan, visiting Japan, I have spent many Christmas times in this marvelous country. Something about it reminds me of my childhood, back when the sight of illuminations, decorations, and the smell of peppermint used to delight me down to my toes.
You might be thinking, “Why is Christmas so big in a country that isn’t even partway religious?” Well, that is because the Japanese have remembered the foundational element of togetherness that makes Christmas so special to begin with.
Whenever the winter season blows into Japan with cool, damp temperatures and snow throughout the mountains, the “feeling” of Christmas begins to emanate from the country’s deepest roots. Giving presents, spending time with loved ones, enjoying the small things like coffee together or decorating a tree are all activities people begin engaging in often.
Stationary stores and 100-yen shops bring in their holiday inventory of cards and notes, snacks, and ornaments. Sometimes the spread is far more impressive than anything I had ever seen back home in the States.
People begin to put in reservations for their Christmas cakes, which are a huge deal in Japan, and department stores overhaul their supply of wrapping paper.
In Japan, sending thoughtful notes to friends and family is still in practice. Christmas is just one of the few times throughout the year people write loving messages or give thanks to those in their lives. This, of course, precedes New Year’s Eve, considered the most boisterous holiday of them all in Japan.
You see, to give and receive are honors. When you receive something, you delight the giver by viewing the item or card, carefully opening the envelope or wrapping (which can be as complicated as origami), and appreciating the sentiment.
What do we do in America? We rip the wrapping off, toss it aside, then view our prize. If it does not match our tastes, we trash it or re-gift it. Kids play with their toys for, what, five minutes? To me, this comes off us ungrateful. Expectant. As if you do not care what you get as long as you get something.
The Japanese, however, mull over even the simplest of words in their notes. The culture is so full of respect. During Christmas, it just… glitters. Like the lights that illuminate the trees, shop displays, and houses.
Whenever you find yourself in Tokyo, Japan, I highly recommend going to the following places to see some of the most beautiful Christmas lights anywhere:
- Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi
- Caretta Shinodome
- Showa Memorial Park
- Ginza – the streets around Ginza intersection are magical
- Shinjuku Southern Terrace – very romantic spot
- Omotesando-dori – all those trees lining the street get adorned with sparkling lights
- Odaiba – a gargantuan electrical Christmas tree is set up outside of Decks Odaiba.
Of course, there are some major differences in a Japanese-styled Christmas. Since Christianity is not seen as the reason for the season, you will not see much references to Jesus in his manger. Gasp! But, again, the Japanese love Christmas for its spirit of giving. Moreover, it is a day of romance, friendship, and bonding.
This also shocked me when I first experienced Christmas in Japan. Apparently, where in the United States we make up this gargantuan spreads of food for our family, the Japanese reserved a pot of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Because almost everyone does this, you sometimes have to make your order of wings weeks in advance.
As for the cake I mentioned? Around the world, the custom seems to be fruit cake. Why, I will never know. But in Japan? It is yellow sponge cake, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries. Naturally, the cakes are wrapped as beautifully as some presents are.
No one gets off on Christmas, because it is not a national holiday. If you work in a school for children or adolescents, the day might be made up of parties though. Dancing, singing Christmas songs, and getting visited by a rather skinny Santa Claus are par for the course. Speaking of Santa, his name is written in Japanese as サンタクロース (Santa Kurosu). “Merry Christmas” is seen as メリークリスマス.
So if you know someone living abroad in Japan, send them a card. Or if you plan on traveling to Japan throughout the holidays, why not practice spreading some cheer by saying “Merry Christmas” to those you meet? Because of the glory of the season is that kindness and love is international and comes with no language barriers.