Let’s Make a Christmas: Shopping

IMG_2945Christmas is not a widely celebrated holiday in Japan. Most Japanese are not Christian, and schools and businesses stay open on December 25. But if you were to walk around any stores between Halloween and late December, you would think otherwise. Christmas music plays in stores, and Christmas decorations appear in 100 yen shops, grocery stores, and fancy shopping meccas like Sogo. Yet despite the ubiquity of Christmas retail cheer, something just seems slightly….off.

Let’s imagine that Chinese New Year suddenly took off in the U.S. Most Americans don’t know much about the holiday–perhaps something about parades with dragons, colorful decorations, envelopes of money, and lots of red and gold. The stores would carry gorgeous decorations and Americans would buy them and come up with their own celebrations and rituals around them. At first glance it would look like Chinese New Year, but an actual Chinese person would quickly decide, “Hey, that’s not quite New Year…” Christmas in Japan is pretty much like that.

IMG_2917The decorations appear shortly after Halloween and start to peter out mid-December, well before Christmas itself. Today is December 20, and the stores’ displays have shifted from Christmas to the main event just under two weeks away: New Year’s Day.

IMG_2946There are plenty of Christmas decorations available if you’re not too particular on what you get. Tinsel garlands, santa hats, and lots of glitter fill the stores just like at home. But once you start looking for specific items the hunt may become more difficult. Live Christmas trees exist, but at a high premium (more on this in a future post!). Ornaments come from either super cheap shops like the 100 yen store, or super fancy places like Sogo. And foil wrapped chocolate Santas, or candy canes? Just forget it.

Not many stockings, but lots of free-standing, filled-with-goodies Santa boots!

The initial How Can I Have Christmas Without a Chocolate Santa thoughts quickly give way to reminders of what really matters. Family. Gratitude. Helping those who need it. Christmas (or Christmas Eve) dinner. Church, if that’s your thing. And most importantly, the people you love.

But let’s not forget that sacred bucket of KFC on Christmas day! Yep, it’s a Thing. I’ll let the fine folks at Smithsonian Magazine fill you in on that one.

Merīkurisumasu, everyone!

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The Good Luck Festival (Tori no Ichi)

Every fall, shrines across Japan hold Tori no Ichi festivals. Business owners come to these festivals to buy good luck symbols called kumade, which the owners display in their businesses during the coming year. Two weeks ago my friend Chika invited Cy and and I to join her family to see such a festival at the Otori shrine here in Yokohama.


She suggested that we go right after dark, since it’s the most beautiful time to see the kumade stalls. She was right! Each kumade begins with a bamboo rake as its base. Various good luck charms, dolls, and other objects create the beautiful finished decorations. Every time someone bought a kumade the stall owners sang and clapped a song to thank them and wish them luck.




After wandering the crowded streets for a while, we arrived at the shrine itself. People lined up to ring the bell, clap their hands, bow, and say a quick prayer.


We passed a dumpster overflowing with last year’s kumade. I could not imagine throwing away such beautiful works of art, but Chika explained that doing anything else with an old kumade would bring bad luck.


No street fair is complete without games–and food! We wandered for a bit and sampled some of the offerings. After Cy and his friend Matthew tried their luck at a few games, we headed home.