Of all the Durham students who came to study in Tokyo, not one of us went home for Christmas. Not just because it’s really really far, but also because we all love Japan and want to experience as much of it as possible while we can.
The only thing that we all thought might be a downside to this choice was spending Christmas away from our families in the UK. There are a lot of things to potentially miss about Christmas Day, and Japanese Christmas is pretty much completely different. But it turned out fine! So I’m going to tell you a bit about how some of us spent Christmas, and after that New Year, in Tokyo.
First off, the main thing I thought I would miss was food. I love mince pies more than I can say, and Christmas dinner is something that I treasure dearly. My family and I managed to partially solve this problem by arranging for a huge box of food to be sent to me from the UK (it should be noted that it’s usually not very expensive to send parcels to and from Japan, surprisingly, and it only took one weekend to arrive!). This box of many wonders contained such goods as mince pies, Christmas cake, many many biscuits, cadburys hot chocolate, and most importantly proper English tea. My cravings were thus satisfied.
In Japan there is no such thing as a family Christmas dinner, and Christmas isn’t a national holiday. Everybody goes to work as usual, and then comes home for a normal evening. There is one difference that Christmas throws into the average Japanese person’s daily life, however, and this is KFC. Yes, KFC. That age-old Christmas tradition. At some point it was decided in the minds of the Japanese populace (after a pretty amazing marketing campaign by Kentucky Fried Chicken) that Christmas dinner was to be KFC, and so after work people go to pick up their RESERVED chicken from their local store. That’s right, you have to reserve KFC for Christmas. That’s how big a deal it is.
We DIDN’T reserve chicken, and we made our own Christmas the way we wanted it. We woke up late and went out for pancakes. Then, we rode in peddle-boats in the park. THEN, we went shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku (because all the shops are open as normal – madness). In the evening, a large group of us exchange students met at an izakaya (like a Japanese pub) to drink, and then proceeded to partake in a very lengthy, drunken session of Christmas karaoke. Think Mariah and Wham. In the end, it was totally weird, and completely different. It didn’t feel like Christmas as much as normality with a dash of Christmas spirit. But it was fun!
On Boxing Day, fun ‘Christmas’ activities continued. A few friends and myself went to an exhibition by Sebastian Masuda, my one true Tokyo hero, the founder of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, director of her music videos, artist, designer and Kawaii icon. Little did we know that he would actually be there. I turned a corner in the gallery, saw his face and had to turn right back around in shock. We spoke to him. I can die now. After this, I went to do something genuinely Christmasy, and that was to see the Nutcracker by a Japanese ballet company! I went with my Teikyo son from Durham, through whom I managed to meet some of the ballerinas who were performing that night. It was a fabulous show!
New Years in Japan is also very different to New Years in the UK. It’s not about getting wasted and going to parties, but about family, ritual and good luck for the coming year. At midnight and just after, many go to their shrine or temple to pray for the first time in the year. It’s customary to watch the sunrise the next morning (the first of the year) for good luck. During the day on January 1st, families gather for a traditional meal and to receive money from relatives.
A few of us gathered on the last night of December to visit Meiji Jingu, one of the biggest and the most popular shrine for New Years in Tokyo. We wore haori (over our coats, because it was freezing) and it was a super sweet affair! The crowds at the shrine were insane and it took a long time to actually get in and pray for the first time in 2016, but the atmosphere was great and the important historical site was lit up beautifully. We all then resolved that we were determined to stay up until sunrise, and so the natural course of action was to do karaoke for five hours until it was time for the sun to come up. We watched it rise in Inokashira park with many others who had come to get their luck.
Having stayed up until 7am, all of us then slept for the entirety of January 1st. On January 2nd, however, we got out of bed to see the emperor at the imperial palace, since this date is one of only two in the year – the other being his birthday – that he actually comes out and addresses the public. Although I’m not much of a fan of the Emperor system itself, historically or as things stand, I thought that seeing the Emperor would be an interesting cultural experience, and went since I might not be able to go again. After lots of crowds and security checks (but also lots of pretty palace scenery) we got to see the emperor talk for about thirty seconds amidst some avid flag-waving before retreating back inside. But hey, at least we can say we did it!
So that’s Christmas and New Years in Japan for you! Tokyo University students now have a winter holiday of three months, so I’ll be letting you know about my travels within Japan and my holiday activities soon!