Christmas in Sapporo

Leading up to the winter solstice, friends and family back home all asked me the same question: Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? Indeed they do. They really, really do. There are a few differences between customs in the US and in Japan, but on face value, Japan appears to love Christmas as much as—if not more than—anyone else. And in super snowy Hokkaido, Christmastime is rather idyllic and magical.

It comes but once a year. ...And always early.

Beginning in mid November, the Christmas music started in stores and on the radio. By December, it was everywhere. The 100 Yen shops and omiyage (おみやげ – souvenir, gift) vendors quickly filled their inventories with red and white seasonal trinkets. Judging by the time that my American friends on Facebook began complaining about the early arrival of Christmas decorations in stores, I’d estimate that Santa’s onslaught in Japan begins at least two weeks in advance. It seems that the entire nation of Japan is able to kick into Christmas mode with the perturbing efficiency of a Starbucks.

And that is where Japan really puts the US to shame: the omnipresent commercialization of the Christmas holiday. The lights, “Jingle Bells”, Christmas trees, Santa hats, snow globes, advent calendars; you name it, they’ve got it. And it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it. With the constant Yuletide saturation, it’s impossible not to catch the infectious spirit. And why would you want to? It’s the most wonderful time of the year, so they say. Well, perhaps you’re trying not to think about the holidays because you are thousands of miles away from your family, your friends, your girlfriend… Still, it’s a losing battle. No one can stand against Santa and his minions. Don’t even try.

The big difference between Christmas in the US and Japan is that in Japan, Christmas isn’t really the holiday that you spend with your family; it’s more a couples’ holiday. New Year’s Day is the traditional family holiday. Christmas in Japan is the perfect time to have a fancy dinner with your sweetheart, probably involving fried chicken (seriously), and definitely ending with a Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ). In fact, Lawson’s, 7/11, Seicomart, and the other conbini’s advertise their Christmas cakes more and more heavily the closer it gets to December 25th. Lawson’s really gets into the spirit by forcing all of their employees to wear red Santa outfits and—at least on Christmas Eve—making one poor soul stand outside the store entrance with a megaphone, aggressively trying to unload as many cakes as possible before midnight. I hope the red suits are well-insulated, because in late December, it’s bitterly cold outside.

On Saturday December 17th, my friend Mayumi had invited me to see her gospel singing group perform in Odori Park. This proved to be ultra Christmassy, as Odori Park was covered in snow and the east end recently transformed into a winter wonderland. An impressive light show really set a festive mood. Holiday light displays are called “illumination” (イルミネーション), yet another term directly borrowed from English. Not only were several trees lit up, but there were large 3D figures of comprised of a wireframe of Christmas lights. Even Sapporo’s iconic TV Tower was lit up like a Christmas tree.

The centerpiece of the illumination was a sea scene, with a huge net of blue lights hung just a meter or two above the snow. The lights would light up and fade out on a timer, creating the optical illusion of undulating waves. The scene was accented by several bird figures formed with white lights. There were seagulls soaring just above the water and cranes standing in it, both brilliantly popping out against the ever changing blue. A two-meter high walkway had been erected at one end to make viewing and photographing the scene easier, but it had a line of people waiting to get their chance, and since it was so cold outside, I didn’t bother waiting for a turn.

Mayumi’s gospel choir had come from Otaru to perform at the east end of Odori Park, on the block right beside TV Tower. I arrived to discover that this particular block had been transformed into a veritable village of shops, resembling a German mountain town. Some store fronts were selling Christmas-themed trinkets, others had glass works (which I’m confident came from Otaru), but most were selling food and drinks. Soft pretzels, bratwursts, soup, and cocoa abound; all hot to provide relief from the winter chill. There was also hot red wine available, and it seemed to be very popular. I didn’t actually try a glass myself (even though I was freezing cold by this point), but I suspect that it was what’s properly called “mulled wine” or “Glühwein”; not merely hot, but also flavored with added spices. At the center of the German shop village was a two-story tall, wireframe white obelisk. It had several rods protruding out from the center like branches and was also covered in lights, playing the role of a giant modern art Christmas tree.

Even though I got there just in the nick of time for the singing to start, I was still shivering before they even completed the sound check. The singing was quite entertaining, with the choir singing vocal jazz renditions of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and “Jingle Bell Rock”. They also performed “Joy to the World”—but the Three Dog Night, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” song—not the traditional Christmas carol. I didn’t bother saying anything about it. The group of Japanese women did a respectable job of pronouncing the English lyrics, and some of the gospel-style solos were fun to listen to. Still, after 30 minutes of standing in the audience, my teeth were chattering uncontrollably and my feet ached in frozen rebellion.

Christmas Eve Eve (December 23rd) was on a Friday, so I ventured out to Susukino to meet up with fellow ALT Nari, and some of her Japanese friends. Since it was pretty cold out, I chose a route that allowed me to walk most of the way in Sapporo’s extensive underground walkways. Once I made it to Sapporo Station (札幌駅) above ground, I could walk all the way down to Susukino Station (薄野駅) without having to brave the elements. In fact, I had the good fortune of selecting the best possible exit from the “Pole Town” underground shopping area, as it was about only two meters from my destination’s front door. The place was fairly posh chain bar/restaurant called “WALL BAR DINING” and it had an all-caps logo that seemed to shout at me.

As it turned out, I had actually already met two of Nari’s friends; Daichi and Usaji. I had attended an impromptu karate class with them back in September. After some dinner and drinks at the restaurant, we ventured out onto the streets of Susukino. It wasn’t long before a street worker sold Daichi (our unofficial leader) on his particular karaoke establishment. We took an elevator up to the fifth or sixth floor, were given our own room, and commenced singing. The karaoke place had nomihoudai (飲み放題 – all-you-can-drink) of course, but it also provided free soft serve ice cream, which seemed a bit peculiar to me. The ladies sang a surprising number of anime songs (like only anime songs), and I made sure we got in a Christmas medley to appease the Roman god Saturn.

On Christmas Eve, I was invited to a party at the apartment of another fellow ALT, Jack. Hailing from Sheffield, England, Jack is a connoisseur of Nintendo games (much like myself) and the evening promised to include a fair share of Wii playing. When I arrived, Wii Mario Kart was already in full swing. To my surprise, Nari’s Japanese friends from previous evening were also in attendance, so I actually knew most of the guests from the get-go.

Everyone brought snacks and/or drinks, so there was plenty of refreshments to keep the good times rolling (at least for most of the evening). Case in point, Jérémie (from France) had brought pasta and individual molten chocolate cakes, both of which he had made himself. Experience tells me that when a Frenchmen offers to make dessert, you should enthusiastically take him up on the offer. The molten chocolate cakes were amazing.

Jack is also a musician, and to my surprise there was a ukulele to pass around and play. I fooled around with four-string guitar fingering to see what chords I could play on the diminutive instrument, whilst the other guests were preoccupied with Wii Sports.

Once all the guests had arrived, we had a Secret Santa gift exchange. Apparently the gift exchange had been organized ahead of time over Facebook, but I never received any recipient-specific instructions. All I knew was to bring a gift costing 1000 yen or less, but apparently the others had got specific information on their gift recipient’s interests and tastes. Luckily, my gift of Studio Ghibli playing cards was something that anyone could appreciate…I think.

You actually look pretty good as a woman.

At some point, someone produced a woman’s wig and everyone took turns wearing it and posing for multiple iPhone photos. This was especially fun for the dudes, as a man in woman’s wig always makes people cock their head to side and say, “You… actually look pretty good as a woman.” Inexplicably, there was a giant stuffed banana in the room, so all the guys had to pose with it. Then we proved our masculinity by fiercely battling each other in Smash Bros. Brawl.

Former Sapporo ALT, Canadian citizen, and good friend of mine, Jennie was also at the party. Since her birthday was coming up on the 30th, Usaji drew a customized birthday card for her on the spot. I’ve found that most young people in Japan can draw really well, probably due to the incredible popularity of manga and anime, and Usaji was no exception. She really captured Jennie’s personality with an anime-style portrait.

About the time that everyone had imbibed enough to jump into the Wii version of WarioWare, we discovered that we had actually drank all of the alcohol. Since the fun couldn’t end so early, someone had to venture out into the cold and make a run to convenience store. We formed a party of four to tackle this mission: Jack, Jérémie, Yoshiko, and me. To our surprise, the Lawson’s nearest to Jack’s apartment was extremely busy and soldout of beer. We went to a Seicomart a couple blocks away and it too was very crowded. Even though it was around 12:30am—and now officially Christmas Day—I have never seen the convenience stores so full of people. By the time we returned to the apartment, half of the other guests had left, meaning we now had a lot of alcohol to divide among less people.

At this point, people had started playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a Mario game that allows up to four people to play simultaneously, all on the same screen. Everyone was on the beginning of World 2 when I cracked open a beer and jumped in. After a while more guests departed, bringing the party down to only five people; plus, Yoshiko fell asleep, so only four waking people. Still, Jérémie, Jack, Yoko, and I kept on playing and playing, into the Wii hours of the night. The crazy gameplay, challenging jumps further complicated by your friends getting in the way, amused us for hours. We tried help each other, using teamwork as best we could, but death after unintended death ensued. We laughed and laughed, eventually making it all the way to the end of World 8. When we beat Bowser—or “Koopa” (クッパ) as he’s still called in Japan—and finished the game, we looked at the clock. It was 6:30am. We had literally playing Super Mario all night long, and it was now Christmas morning.

Since it was morning, we woke up Yoshiko and headed out to a restaurant for Christmas breakfast. Where does one go for Christmas breakfast in Japan? Well, we opted for traditional Japanese fast food and ended up at a Matsuya (松屋) in Susukino. Curry Rice for breakfast has never tasted so right. God bless us, everyone.

I awoke from my short slumber at 12:30pm on Christmas day. After merely four hours or so of sleep, I really wanted to stay in bed, but I thought that for the sake of my sleep schedule I better force myself to wake up. It was already midday, so everyone was already going about their business. Yujiro had some free time, so we sat down on the living room floor and played some Super Smash Bros. It turned out to be a surprisingly Nintendo Christmas.

That evening we had a big yakiniku dinner at the Fukui house. Reno and Reni, a couple young ladies who are friends of family had dinner with us. They brought an ice cream Christmas cake from Baskin Robbins, or as it’s called in Japan, “31 Ice Cream” (サーティワンアイスクリーム). Shun, Ken, and Yuji talked with Reno and Reni in Japanese, and I did my best to keep up. But eventually I felt exhausted and decided to call it night a bit early.

On December 26th, Boxing Day, or the Feast of St. Stephen as my father calls it, I came downstairs to find a task awaiting me; shoveling snow! Ken and I started shoveling around the Fukui house together, and we were eventually joined by Kouhei, who lives in a neighboring house. After much snow was shoveled, we retreated inside the house for a breakfast that Hiroko-chan had graciously made for us. It was Curry Udon. For the second day in a row I was eating curry for breakfast and I can’t overemphasize how delicious it was. I think curry breakfasts might become my new Christmas tradition.

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