Christmas in Tokyo

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Holidays are a wonderful way to bring the differences between cultures into focus.

I spent Christmas Eve in real Tokyo style – in a proper Japanese queue.  I waited over an hour to slowly proceed through another Tokyo tradition – the “light-up”, this one at the Tokyo Midtown complex in Roppongi.

Christmas is certainly very much on the radar here, as any anime fan knows, but it’s a remarkably different experience.  It’s a work and school day, for starters, and the general view of the holiday is something akin to a romantic time for couples to express their love openly (in whatever way they see fit).  Christmas decorations are everywhere, and so is the unique Japanese take on Christmas carols.  But it all feels very different. 

Somehow or another, KFC (it was still Kentucky Fried Chicken then) convinced the Japanese about 40 years ago that fried chicken was the cornerstone of the American Christmas (almost universally referred to as “Xmas” here) experience.  Today, people call KFC weeks in advance to reserve their fried chicken for Xmas Eve, and line up for as long as hour to buy it.  The other food item that the Japanese have decided is essential American Xmas gear is strawberry shortcake.  On my way home from the station last night I saw – just as I have in many an anime – mostly young workers in front of bakeries and konbini hawking shortcakes, all in Santa hats and some in full Santa suits (I felt too bad for them to take pictures).  Another, somewhat more traditional Tokyo Christmas tradition is the “Christmas Market” – a Japanese take on a German Christmas Fair. Having never been to one I can’t speak to how authentic these are, but the ones at Skytree and Roppongi Hills were interesting – full of overpriced German beer and sausage platters, as well as stalls selling Christmas trinkets. The one at Roppingi Hills is sponsored by the German Consulate, so presumably they’ve advised on some of the details.

I observed Christmas in traditional Tokyo –  Ginza – and also the new Tokyo – at Midtown, Roppongi Hills and at Soramachi, the dazzling complex at the foot of the Sky Tree. You’ll see pictures of both the state of the art Skytree and the rather dated Tokyo Tower (easily visible from Roppongi) below.  Frankly, poor old Tokyo Tower looks quite sad and pathetic by comparison.  Skytree is hugely impressive even from a distance, but up close it’s a stunner – not just incredibly tall but a very handsome design, especially when lit up at night.  Not only that, but the shopping and entertainment complex is one of the best I’ve ever been to.  They’ve managed to make it not only architecturally interesting, but to make the shopping itself interesting.  It’s full of places that sell Japanese goods rather than generic international chains, with a good many items only available there.  They’ve also put together an outstanding restaurant lineup, including a second branch of the hottest ramen-ya in Tokyo and the first Tokyo outpost of a beloved Hokkaido kaitenzushi restaurant.

If there’s one thing that the Japanese are good at, it’s designing shopping complexes, and Tokyo Midtown is also very impressive.  Their light-up was easily the best of the ones I visited (Roppongi Hills and Yebisu Garden Place – home of the beer museum – being the others), and their shopping complex also one of the more impressive I’ve seen here.  I imagine these places would be even better if you had money to spend at them, but even for people-watching and window-shopping (plus grazing at the many bakeries) they’re also a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Merry Xmas to all, and thanks for your support this year.  Now Tokyo gets ready for a much more significant holiday here – New Year’s – and I really look forward to experiencing my first Japanese Hatsumode, as well as my first Comiket.  It should be a fun week – after that, it’s off to Kyoto for a few days.  Stay tuned for more updates.

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  1. A

    Tokyo Tower might not be a grand skytower but it certainly still looks amazing. Good picture.

  2. W

    Thanks for the post, Enzo. I love reading about your experiences with Japanese culture.
    I haven't posted a while (I used to post as snipyro), but I just want to thank you for continuing to blog so much anime despite being so busy. Your posts are by far the most insightful, and I've come to choose what anime I watch based on what you blog.
    I also finally finished Seirei no Moribito! Great series, and possibly the most well done final episode I've ever watched. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. You're welcome. Always great to hear there's a new Moribito fan on the block.

  4. A

    I don't want to get off the track, but I find it distressing that KFC is so popular there under that false disguise. I bet almost all Japanese folks either don't know or don't care about the brutal factory farming and antibiotic and all other chemical that pumps into chicken to grow 5+ times bigger breast meats in mere 3 weeks instead of 3-4 months, so that they could barely stand on their own. I don't wish to dempen the mood, but the truth is there not to make people feel good, but for what it is.

    strawberry shortcake, I don't have any issue with. But sadly KFC thing again informs me how it is easy to brainwash a seemly intelligent, reasonable populace by mere series of misinformation/propagandas and generations of child indoctrinations. I hope someone do tell the truth, so that at least they can decide themselves on this made-up tradition. I don't blame Japanese folks at all, just the KFC the corporation. I, myself, ate a few KFC before quitting for good; thankfully there are like two KFC locations in NYC, so it's not like starbucks or chipotle in every corner.

  5. A

    I agree with you on KFC, but I don't think this is a place to talk about things like this. Don't mean to be rude, just wanted to give some friendly advice.

  6. S

    I'm in Tokyo for the holidays too. Gotta say it is pretty spectacular.

    The Tokyo Skytree was excellent at night. The view was spectacular and the lit-up Tokyo Tower is still a highlight of the view.

    I must say…



    PS – First night I grab something to eat here I get massive diarrhea. Why oh why!

  7. Food here is usually pretty safe. I think it was raw alfalfa sprouts that got me (I didn't know they were unsafe). There's no place like the john for the holidays, eh? My condolences.

  8. A

    Thanks, Enzo, for the post and the photos — what a different Christmas there in Tokyo and all the stunning lights… Merry Christmas to you as well.


  9. S

    Merry Christmas, Enzo! :]

  10. K

    I also went to the Midtown Christmas Light show (although I went on the 22nd I believe). 🙂

    My friend went to the one in Tokyo station (something called Hikari light). I have to admit from the video he showed me his looked cooler. But I enjoyed the Midtown one and was extremely impressed with Japanese line control.

    Sadly I flew back home on the 24th, already missing Japan. I did have some Christmas cake on my last day there. 🙂

  11. Japanese line control is amazing (I suppose Comiket will be the ultimate test). Basically, the line controls itself – give people a basic idea of what's expected, and they do it. For an American, this is a very strange concept.

  12. d

    Yebisu beer in Evangelion. Fantastic find. Happy holidays, Enzo

  13. h

    I'm happy the Skytree managed to awe you — I rarely hear about it, and have no idea what it is (as of post time — you can be sure I'm gonna wiki it after this).

    I always thought the Tokyo Tower was the more iconic building, since it is clearly recognizable in a variety of anime, though usually ones in which Tokyo gets destroyed… it definitely featured prominently in Magnitude and the like.

  14. Skytree hasn't really been around long enough to feature in many anime yet.

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