If it’s your first time, Christmas in Japan can be a rather… interesting cultural experience. It sure was for me. I was completely caught off guard by how different it is from back home. For one, there’s no turkey to be found anywhere!
Much like other western things here, Christmas has been tweaked, nudged and massaged into something uniquely Japanese. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun or meaningful – just different. In fact, once you get used to the way it’s done here, it’s actually a pretty cool experience.
Here are a few things you should know:
1. It’s the most romantic day of the year
While the traditional western Christmas revolves around family, in Japan it’s more about cozying up with your significant other. Restaurants are booked to capacity and shopping malls are draped in beautiful festive lights as couples wine, dine and take romantic strolls before ending up at a nice hotel for the night. For single people, it also the best season to find a partner – you’re more likely to get a date (or dates) in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when everyone is trying to find The One just in time for the big day.
2. Lights, lights everywhere
Christmas lights, or “Illumination” as it’s called here, is a huge attraction during the festive season. Theme parks, shops and malls are lavished with pretty lights and themed decorations. The streets of posh areas like Omotesando, Ginza and Roppongi are absolutely stunning during this time of year too, and it’s a great opportunity to take a walk and soak up the atmosphere.
3. What turkey? It’s all about the Kentucky (Fried Chicken)
In the early 70s KFC ran a series of ads called “Kentucky for Christmas!” (Kurisumasu ni wa kentakki!) The campaign was so successful at capturing the country’s imagination that Christmas became synonymous with KFC. So if you’re not out on a date on Christmas Eve, you’re probably at home with your family feasting on buckets of the Colonel’s finger lickin’ chicken. It’s so popular that people put in their reservations months in advance to avoid the (very) long lines.
4. Let them eat cake (but save some for yourself too)
The Christmas tradition is to chase those delicious chunks of chicken with scrumptious servings of strawberry shortcake. But if strawberries aren’t your thing, any cake will do, so long as it’s cake. A major butter shortage this year has severely affected cake supplies though, which means boyfriends everywhere are under huge pressure to get their hands on one, or risk the wrath of their girlfriends. Because while you can skip the KFC, you can’t skip the cake.
5. Ripping open your presents is bad form
Half the fun of Christmas morning is running down to the Christmas tree and tearing open your presents, right? Well, in Japan, that’s a no-no. Presents here are opened neat and slow, taking care to keep the wrapping paper intact. It’s about respecting the giver and the gift – quite a contrast to western culture where you’re expected to open it in front of the giver with gusto. On the upside, the gifts are often so intricately and beautifully wrapped that it’s hard to shred them without feeling a bit of guilt, so that helps.
Congratulations, you now know what a Japanese Christmas is like. What you do with your newfound superpowers is entirely up to you, but remember to be jolly and nice! Merry Christmas everyone!
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