This year, I decided to stay in Japan for Christmas and New Years, to experience first hand the local flavour of the holidays.  Christmas in Japan is a somewhat different affair to what we’re used to.  Rather than a nominally religious holiday, Japan throws any pretence of that out the window and markets it firmly as a day for couples and presents.  Almost like a Valentine’s Day II, if you like.  Ingredients for a successful Christmas Day in Japan:

1. KFC.  Before Christmas was a big deal in Japan, someone exceedingly crafty at KFC decided to market their product as the de-facto standard for celebrating a romantic, if not greasy, holiday.  It’s now firmly entrenched, with other fast food chains spruiking KFC-like boxes of chicken out of the front of their stores, from stands erected especially for the day.

Rumour has it that you need to book your chicken months in advance to avoid disappointment.  The sign out the front of the store directs people who have pre-ordered to a separate queue to handle the rush.

Alternative 1. Roast chicken.  High end department stores sell whole cooked chickens like the one below.  Unlike Australia, where you can pick up a decent chook for $10 at any supermarket, in Japan this is a rarity and it will run you $35 for the one below.

2. Christmas cake.  Someone, sometime decided that Christmas was a holiday in search of a baked good, and so a sponge cake with white icing and strawberries became the essential buy for the day.  Once again, cake shops start taking orders months ahead, so you need to get in early.  Many Tokyo apartment don’t have ovens, so making one yourself really isn’t an option.

3. Guys forced to advertise a carwash and wear Santa suits on Christmas Day.  Not essential really, just kind of interesting.  I equate Christmas in Australia with almost everyone having the day off, and most shopping malls being ghost towns.  In Japan, it’s just another day, not marked by a public holiday or any slowdown in effort.  Lots of people will celebrate in the evening, but aside from the massive illuminations and decorations like you’d see anywhere else, these are purely for prettiness rather than any “reason for the season”.

In any case, the big show in Japan is New Years, the type of family-oriented day we have at Christmas.  From most reports, the shrines in Tokyo are packed full of people going to receive blessings for the New Year, like some sort of monastic mosh pit.  Wish me luck!


The fireworks you can watch between buildings without ruining your appetite

Fireworks is a national obsession in Japan during the summer – every weekend throughout late July and August, hundreds of thousands of kimono’d people gather to watch explosions in the Tokyo night sky.

Not all fireworks exhibitions are organised equally, however.  One that is less equal than others is the Sumida River fireworks show.  Tokyo, you see, has a lot of tall buildings.  Ideally, you’d put on a big fireworks display somewhere away from all the buildings, in a nice spacious area where everyone can see.  According to the Sumida River fireworks organisers, being able to actually see the fireworks at a fireworks show is highly overrated.  Welcome to your prime viewing position:

Yes, those are fireworks, way over there in the distance.

The preparation of the event was possibly done during an organising committee kegger.  There were streets cordoned off as for the audience (standing room only), which could only be entered twenty minutes before the actual event.  Unfortunately, these didn’t run parallel to the river, but leading into it, flanked by buildings on both sides – which means that the viewing angle, if there was one, was quite narrow.  If you couldn’t get in, too bad – you’d have to rough it, scouring the streets for a likely viewing spot.  Unfortunately, since you didn’t know exactly where the fireworks would be launching ahead of time, this proved to be a guessing game.

A guessing game me and the thousand people around me lost.  As the first sound of an bursting firework vibrated through the packed street, we suddenly, collectively realised we couldn’t see a thing.  Picking up our beers and groundsheets en masse, we scurried to nearby streets looking for a better vantage point, fireworks refugees looking for a new place to set up camp.

As it turned out, a lot of people seemed to be quite satisfied with only seeing the rightmost quarter of a fireworks exhibition.  They squatted in the streets and perched on car bumpers, beers in one hand and overpriced pizza from a guy doing the rounds in another, peering in between the buildings.  In spite of my complaining that I was only enjoying a quarter of the display, the angle turned out to be interesting after all.  Being a veteran  of some eight or so Tokyo fireworks shows now, it’s getting very hard to take a new photo of a firework.  At least the Sumida River show provided a new spin on an old theme:

In this photo, you can just see some smug people watching the show unimpeded from the top of their building.  I’m not sure if my half hour of glaring at the back of their heads reduced their enjoyment at all, but we can only hope.

Luckily, the next weekend’s show would see the fireworks in a full widescreen, panoramic view.  More pictures to come – but somewhat slowly.  In a country where even taking a full week off is seen as treason, I’ve taken some extended holidays to remember what the sun looks like and straighten my spine out from a chair-shaped position.  Updates will be a bit sporadic, but I promise all-you-can-see fireworks.

Samba like you mean it, please don’t make me shock you

If you had to name cultural influences on Japan, where would you begin?  China – of course.  Korea – you’ll find Korean restaurants everywhere.  Brazil – ?  Yes, Brazil.

Early in the 1900’s, a large contingent of Japanese people known as nikkei (lit. “descendants of the sun”) made the long trek to Brazil in the hopes of finding great wealth.  This didn’t really pan out, but the Japanese community remained there and formed a new cultural off-shoot.  Decades later, as Japan became an economic powerhouse, a lot of the descendants of the original nikkei living overseas came back to Japan in the hopes of finding great wealth.  This didn’t really pan out either, with the Japanese economy tanking from the nineties through to today.  Although the nikkei were granted special immigration rights, being of Japanese descent, their non-native-level Japanese skills meant they were largely only qualified for low-paying manual labour.  With the number of jobless rising in the recent tough economic times, the government is now literally paying Nikkei Brazilians between $3k – $4k AUD to leave and never come back, neatly exporting some of their unemployment problems.

Anyway enough of that kind of geo-cultural talk, it’s samba time!  A big contingent of Japanese-Brazilians in Japan means that every year in Asakusa there’s a massive summer parade with all things Brazilian: bright colours, feathers, music and plenty of bare flesh.  Get there early though – arriving one hour late like the author will only guarantee you a spot behind a six-deep crowd, wondering why it is no-one has yet invented telescoping cyborg arms for taking photographs above people’s heads.


Samba Carnival Tokyo 2009

Against expectations, this guy is making those sequins and feathers work for him.

Samba Carnival Tokyo 2009

Samba Carnival Tokyo 2009

These guys were capoeira-ing their way all the way down the parade route in 30+ degree heat.  It looked exhausting.

Samba Carnival Tokyo 2009

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Drinking under the light of the silvery bloom

Well, just when I thought I had run out of things to say about glorious cherry blossoms, along comes a new flavour.  Night cherry blossoms!


A friend very kindly invited me along to his Friday night work-do which involved sitting under the cherry blossoms and drinking large amounts of alcohol.  I’ve executive-ly summarised the agenda for you in the following photograph:

Cherry blossoms by night, Tokyo

Something a little confusing is that the Japanese word for going to view cherry blossoms during the day is hanami, which literally means “flower viewing”.  However, if you go and look at cherry blossoms at night, it’s not called “night flower viewing” – it’s called yozakura, “night cherry blossoms”.  A small distinction, but unless you know that’s specific word, you’ll forever being saying things like: “So what time shall we leave the the flower viewing that occurs at night?”.

Also, I’m hazy as to if this actually occurred, but I think I mistakenly called the event yozakana on several occasions.  Yozakana, however, is not actually a word that exists in the Japanese language.  Upon consideration, I can only imagine people were translating it as “night fish”.  Luckily, I was never asked what manner of entity a night fish might be.

Cherry blossoms by night, Tokyo

Cherry blossoms by night, Tokyo

The park in question was right next to Tokyo Tower too:

Cherry blossoms by night, Tokyo

If you’re in Tokyo in late March / early April, definitely try to wangle yourself a yozakura invite, and preferably with a big group – the parks are overflowing with people over the cherry blossom season, and there’s power in numbers!

I blame them for trying

Yesterday was White Day in Japan. For the uninitiated, I wrote about Valentine’s Day in Japan previously but the executive summary is this: on Valentine’s Day, ladies give guys chocolates (out of either affection or obligation). One month later, on White Day, men reciprocate – the catch being that the guy’s gift should be at least three times the value of what they received on Valentine’s Day.

Obviously, some clever person working for  a Japanese chocolate company saw a problem just waiting to be fixed.  “So, if only half of the population buys chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and the other half only on White Day… what if we could make everyone buy chocolates on both days every year?”

And so, “reverse” chocolates were born.  At least, the marketing campaign to encourage guys to give girls chocolates on Valentine’s Day AND White Day was born.  One manufacturer even took the creative step of temporarily printing their packaging using mirror-writing to promote the ‘reverse’ idea:

Reverse chocolates

Nice try, chocolate companies.  I hope your sales graphs for February produced much swooning and warming of hearts.  Awww.

The Feast of the Passing of the Burninator

While I was spending some time in Saitama Prefecture recently, I was lucky enough to be there on the same weekend as a popular fire festival.  Less luckily, I had to leave about 6 hours before the festival actually started.

The festival had a most interesting story.  It may be somewhat lost in translation, but…

The son of a god and a princess meet for just one night.  I’m not sure how euphemistically “meet” is used here, because some time later, the princess finds herself pregnant.  Whether through means of the  supernatural or Barry White was not made clear to me.  When the princess then tells the son of the god that it’s his child, he refuses to believe it.

Some time later, the woman gives birth to the child.  Once again, she goes to the son of the god to present his child, but he still will not believe the princess.  So, she hits upon a definitive paternity test.

She puts the baby in a burning house.  That is to say – she puts the baby in the house, and then sets fire to it.  Her theory is that if the child survives, it must have godly genes.  If not…. well, perhaps she would have just been disappointed to not have a god-gene imbued son anyhow.

The really funny part of the story is that of the four people I asked about it, everyone was quite hazy about what exactly happened to the child after the whole “putting the baby in a blazing inferno” part.  I’m just going to go ahead and assume that it survived, but I thought that detail was worth a passing thought.

So today, they re-enact the story.  Even though I wasn’t able to see the festival proper, we happened to be there during the rehearsal.  Two local youngsters, playing the son of the god and the princess, were practicing their arson skills, getting ready for the big evening. Luckily, other people have taken photos before, which you may like to see if you like to see burning things.

Because remember, fire is awesome.


The springing of spring

Finally, the slightly bitter Tokyo winter is almost over! Spring in Tokyo is a big deal, like I’m guessing is the case in most places that have some semblance of distinguishable seasons. Of course, one of the special reasons to look forward to it in Tokyo is the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms (sakura). There’s lots of parties where people go and sit under the trees and drink beer, so it’s a time of year where your social calendar can involve quite a bit of that. The blooming is spectacular, but only lasts for two short weeks.

Not wanting to waste a beautiful spring day indoors, I had a chance to visit Shinjuku Central Park this weekend.  A green oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle of Tokyo, it’s a welcome and refreshing change of pace. The crowds had already started to enjoy the spring weather, laying out tarps and enjoying packed lunches and beer in the big open spaces around the trees.   As popular as it was, my friend told me the place would just about be packed to overflowing by next weekend when the trees lit up in their vivid whites and pinks.

Even though we were there a bit early, there was at least one early bloomer getting some attention:

Nearby, a group of people had started a game of jump rope.  Others started to join in from neighboring groups, and there was a really relaxed, party vibe happening. Given Japan’s general reserve and incredible work ethic (more on that later), there was something especially joyous about seeing strangers joining in and enjoying the simple pleasures of jumping over a rope holding a can of beer or blowing their lungs out on a whistle like it was Mardi Gras time in Rio:

Hanami (flower-watching) season is also particularly significant to me, because it marks the anniversary of my arrival to Japan. More on that later, though…