Christmas in Tokyo
Deputy Editor of Mr Porter, Ashley Ogawa Clarke recalls the sights, sounds and steaming onsen baths of a first Christmas in Japan, and reckons with the "nostalgia and nonsense of festive tradtions."
Ilustration by John Molesworth.
The traditional thing to do in Japan for Christmas dinner, as you may have heard, is to order KFC. This is not an urban myth, but a real custom that came about because of a disturbingly successful marketing campaign. The story goes that, in 1974, Takeshi Okawara, the manager of KFC Japan’s first branch, had overheard some sad-looking expats lamenting how they missed turkey at Christmas. In a dream, it came to him: a ‘party barrel’ of fried chicken would make the perfect substitute, and reinventing Colonel Sanders as Father Christmas was hardly a reach. The campaign took off, and the entrepreneuring Okawara subsequently became CEO of KFC Japan.
Despite living in Tokyo for two years myself, I never did manage to do the whole KFC thing. Christmas for expats is usually the one cue to go home, and so it wasn’t until 2019 that I flew out to meet my wife’s (then girlfriend’s) family for the first time and spend Christmas there. And so on December 25th I was nearly 6000 miles from home, looking out from Reina’s parents’ window on the 33rd floor at the twinkling expanse of light in the city below. It was, really, like spending the season in a parallel universe.
My first mistake was attempting to bring Christmas over in my suitcase. I optimistically pack some M&S mince pies as an offering to Reina’s mum and dad. I don’t know what I’m expecting them to do, but somehow their (totally normal) reaction makes me feel sad. Here I am, with the literal magic of Christmas baked in a box that I’ve brought halfway across the world, and they’re… not really bothered. It dawns on me that without the proper context, tiny pies stuffed with old fruit aren’t that exciting. Christmas is taken much less seriously in Japan than it is in the UK. In a way it has more in common with Valentine’s Day: couples buy each other gifts and might go out for a fancy dinner together, or to Disneyland, but everything stays open and people work as normal.
Still, there are plenty of attempts to cultivate a festive spirit. The usual songs play merrily in the conbinis and department stores, and every corner of the cities and towns are wrapped in lights and tinsel. Shopping in Omotesando is very similar to Oxford Street, except that people are much better dressed. There’s plenty of festive boozing, too: the Japanese version of an office Christmas party is a bonenkai, which literally translates to ‘forget the year party’. If you remember making it onto the last train home, you haven’t drunk enough whisky highballs.
Despite these festive hallmarks, everything still manifests as slightly mangled, as though someone has run the spirit of Christmas through a translation algorithm. Santa is clutching a bucket of fried chicken, and the tinny instrumental version of ‘Let it Snow’ that trills out of the speakers in the 7eleven only serves to remind me how far I am from home.
The day itself largely goes off without fanfare. After spending the morning opening presents, we go out to the Isetan department store to buy a gigantic Japanese Christmas cake (nothing like the boozy, stodgy version, but a light sponge covered in cream and topped with fresh strawberries) and, inexplicably, some Pokémon-themed donuts.
If Christmas was anticlimactic, New Year’s Day – Oshogatsu – held the magic that I was looking for. We wake at 6.30am and walk the dog down to the riverbank in Edogawa to watch the first sunrise of the year while a bunch of pensioners gather to do their daily calisthenics. Afterwards, we visit a shrine to wish for good luck for the year, then drive into the countryside to burn incense at the family graves and visit the grandparents. The smoke rises up into the grey sky and smells like sandalwood. Yoko, Reina’s grandma, has made Osechi, a kind of luxury New Year’s bento box full of traditional food including rice cake soup, konbu seaweed, and black soybeans. Yoko gets drunk on sake and starts talking to me like I’m part of the family. I can’t really understand what she’s saying, but for a moment, it feels like home.
The evening is spent at the nearby onsen, which means sitting in the public baths with Reina’s dad and floundering my way through a conversation in Japanese without any clothes on. We have a conversation about nothing in particular, and he asks me to become part of the family while I turn increasingly pink and try not to pass out from the heat. Naked in a bath with the man who would later become father-in-law is not how I saw my 2020 beginning, but it’s probably the most wholesome – and certainly least-hungover – New Year’s Day I’ve spent in over a decade.
What made the festive experience in Japan best was to give up comparing it to home. Sprouts, KFC, bathing with the in-laws; traditions everywhere are built on nothing more than nostalgia and nonsense, and it’s much sweeter when you shut up and embrace it. The Pikachu donut? Much better than a mince pie, as it happens.