Strawberry Shortcake is the traditional Christmas Cake in Japan, as strawberries are seasonal and in abundance this time of year.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and here at HC Towers, we’re doing our best to get our orders out, shopping done and the decorations up! Christmas is the most important public holiday here in the UK, but how do they celebrate it in our home-from-home, Japan?
In honour of our Aranami Strength Gin with its Japanese botanicals, and with Hidden Curiosities’ founder Jenny having spent time living there, we wanted to give you a taste of what the festive period is like over in Japan. While obviously there are differences and eyebrow raisers, there are also plenty of things that may chime with some familiarity.
The Lead Up to the Season
Walk around, say, Yokohama’s waterfront and you’ll see opulent decorations - lights, snowflakes, tinsel - indeed everything you would expect to find in a big Western city. This may come as a surprise when you consider one fact - the vast majority of the population report either Shinto or Buddhism as their religion, with only 1.5% reporting Christianity. So what’s going on?
Japan has wholeheartedly adopted Christmas as an event, with the message being one of “spread happiness” rather than “celebrate the birth of Christ”. In this way, it’s much like Christmas is for many in the West - less of a religious holiday, and more of an emphasis on joy and tradition.
As you’d expect in the country, there are things that are similar, but viewed through a Japanese lens - Christmas cake becomes strawberry shortcake (delicious), Christmas dinner becomes chicken rather than turkey (more on that later!), and Christmas markets take on a distinctly Japanese twist. The department stores are full of Christmas decorations and the streets are beautifully lit up at night. If you squint, it’s almost like home. Almost.
Traditionally, Christmas Eve is date night for couples, especially for young couples. The gentleman may wish to provide a gift for his partner - a necklace, bracelet or other jewellery, as a token of his esteem. A romantic dinner provides the perfect setting for the gesture.
This however is the only time that Christmas gifts are traditionally exchanged in Japan. With New Year’s celebrations ahead, and oseibo earlier in the month - where work colleagues traditionally exchange gifts - there are plenty of other opportunities for that.
Unlike in the West, Christmas day is not traditionally a holiday in Japan. If you’re a salaryman or woman, you’re going to work as usual. There will be decorations and Christmas music, but you’ll be expected to perform all your tasks as normal. The days off are reserved for New Year - again, more on that later.
There is a rumour in the West that Japanese people enjoy KFC on Christmas Day. Well, we are pleased to report that it’s all true! While it’s certainly not everybody that does this, Christmas time is by far the busiest time of year for the American chain, with many people pre-ordering their chicken to ensure they aren’t disappointed.
This seems to date from an advertising campaign in the 1970s, when Southern fried chicken was promoted as the ideal thing to eat in the season. With fried chicken already popular in Japan, the concept was quickly adopted. And who are we to argue? Hot, crispy chicken is the perfect thing to beat the winter cold!
Boxing Day and onwards
After Christmas, the focus changes extremely quickly to the main event - New Year, or Shōgatsu. You begin to see the characteristic kadomatsu 門松, the three-pronged decoration made of bamboo or pine. This is to welcome the spirits of the season who will in turn provide a good harvest. The decoration is traditionally burned after the season has finished to "release" the spirits - an old tradition that continues to this day.
The turning of the New Year in Japan is roughly equivalent to Western Christmas in importance. It’s the time where families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a national holiday is given to the country’s hard working citizens. All things lead up to the New Year celebrations and the change it represents.
New Year’s Traditions
Unlike in China, Japan uses the Roman calendar to set its New Year. However, the Chinese zodiac is very much in evidence, and you’ll see a lot of things that pertain to the year ahead. 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit, so shops will be full of gifts and decorations that reference this. The traditional offering is a New Year postcard, crucially written by hand, and a lot of emphasis is put on showing off one’s handwriting - special ink brushes are even sold for the purpose. While printed and digital cards are becoming more commonplace, this is one area where tradition definitely persists.
Japanese culture dictates that you should visit a shrine during the first three days of the New Year, with the bigger ones getting thousands of visitors. The most impressive time to visit is perhaps New Year’s Eve itself, when the bells are rung a total of 108 times, with the final peal past midnight to bring in the new year. It’s believed that the bells can erase the sins and troubles of the past year and make for an incredible spectacle.
Japanese New Year is hugely important, and the whole nation takes some time off work to spend time with family. In a culture as hardworking as Japan, this is taken very seriously indeed, and whole businesses shut down for the season.
Osechi is traditionally eaten around New Year in Japan.
As with everything in Japan, food plays a big part. New Year’s food has traditions governing it, and there is symbolism involved in the seasonal dishes. These dishes, known as osechi, can be very elaborate (and expensive), and can be purchased from department stores, with the idea being that they are foods that last for the whole period. There are both traditional foods and non-Japanese dishes, depending on what you choose.
As well as the expensive stuff, homemade dishes are very popular too, both as osechi dishes and otherwise. It’s traditional at this time of year to eat mochi rice cakes, and there is a popular soup called ozōni, featuring mochi floating in a flavourful broth, that is obligatory at this time of year.
Also popular is toshikoshi soba - buckwheat noodles in a hot dashi broth. Delicious, healthy and traditional, the dish symbolises long life and carries great significance. Don’t miss out on it.
Finally, on the 7th of January, a gentle soup with rice and herbs is prepared, to allow the stomach to rest after a period of digesting rich and luxurious foods.
It has to be said, osechi dishes are declining in popularity with younger generations, with the traditional tastes being replaced by more modern and westernised foods. While it’s a trend in common with the rest of the world, we think it’s a shame, as it’s not only delicious, but is a great introduction to Japanese culture at large.
A Great Time to Visit
While it’s important to spend time with family and loved ones over Christmas, if you do happen to find yourself travelling over the festive period, then Japan is a great place to visit. It gives you versions of things that will be familiar to you, and things that are entirely novel and different.
Whatever your tradition at this time of year, we hope you enjoy your festive period, and that you get to spend time with family, friends and loved ones. Merry Christmas from Hidden Curiosities, and we’ll see you in the New Year!