A Very Japanese Christmas

merry christmasChristmas is now well behind us, and we’re getting through 2015 at a steady pace (60 seconds per minute, more or less). Before it gets too much further away, I thought I’d talk a little about some of the more unexpected aspects of the holiday. My first Christmas in Japan was a lot stranger than I was expecting.

I had known some of what was in store for me, of course. Japan hasn’t taken Christianity on board to any great extent, so I was not expecting much acknowledgement of any religious elements to the festival. I knew that it wasn’t accorded any particular significance in terms of shopping or preparation, so there wouldn’t be much in the way of crowds or displays because of the season (frankly, considering what a madhouse any modest-size NZ town turns into in the weeks leading up Christmas, that came as something of a relief). And I had also known that it was more or less just another working day, although when it rolled around and turned out in exactly that way it did feel a bit weird.

What I hadn’t predicted was Christmas dinner, although I suppose I really should have. This is Japan: most people don’t have an oven big enough to roast a moderately large pigeon, let alone a turkey, and they’re not the sort of thing you see in the stores anyway. So, in a marketing success that is surely the envy of other chains, KFC – yes, that KFC – have managed to convince everyone that a bucket of fried chicken is a suitably traditional meal for the occasion.


It’s the true meaning of Christmas, after all.

This has led, entirely predictably, to pretty much every convenience store offering something along the same lines in an effort to cash in on all that greasy, slightly funny-smelling sentiment. ‘Tis the season, and all that. I also wasn’t expecting the Christmas cake. I was not mentally prepared for being presented with anything like this.

xmas cake

Complete with “cream” as fake as a 3 Yen coin.

I’m a fairly traditional chap in some ways and my idea of a traditional Christmas cake involves dried fruit, a rich flavour, and a pretty solid eating experience.

fruit cake

More like a small windowless house, really.

All in all, then, there were a few surprises for me. But you know, all of the ones I’ve talked about so far were the sort of thing that you could reasonably put down to either practicalities, differing tastes, or the sort of differences that inevitably creep in when you take a festival from an assemblage of traditions, translate it across language and cultural borders, and insert it in another society entirely. None of them are the reason this might just have been my weirdest Christmas ever.

This is. xmas orange outsideThis looks like a gigantic illuminated mandarin orange made up of hundreds of smaller mandarin oranges. And it looks like that because that’s exactly what it is. This was my first sign that the “Christmas festival” I had been invited to was not going to be the sort of thing that I was used to. It turns out that I had actually been invited to the “X’mas Orange Festival”, which was remarkably accurately named (wanton cruelty to apostrophes notwithstanding). Oranges are a traditional Japanese winter food, but there’s more to it than that. See, the area it took place in is famous for growing oranges. I’ve had some, and they’re legitimately good oranges – juicy, sweet, and altogether a superior citrus experience. The people who live here are very proud of their oranges.

Very, VERY proud.

There was orange soy sauce. There was a baseball team named after oranges. There were oranges which had somehow been induced to grow into heart shapes, then lovingly wrapped in straw and sealed in boxes to be given as romantic gifts. There were oranges available for eating, but who wants to do that?

orange heart

You thought I was joking?

There was a visit from Mikyan, the official prefectural mascot, who is – and I am not making this up – a dog that has been fused with an orange.


And looks surprisingly happy about it.

And of course, since this was Christmas after all, there were Christmas trees. But they all had something different about them.

xmas orange trees

I guess they really like their fucking oranges around here.

Question of the post: What festival experience has caught you most off-guard? Was it an adaption of something you thought you knew about?

About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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9 Responses to A Very Japanese Christmas

  1. Artemis says:

    My first ‘Christmas cake’ in Japan really through me for a loop too – especially since it was dished up in my school lunch (and sealed in plastic, no less). I guess adaptations of festivals I’m already well-acquainted with tend to throw me off guard a lot more than festivals I’m not so familiar with; the latter always comes with certain expectations, whereas I’m more ready to expect pretty much anything if I already have no or very little idea of what’s going on in the first place.


  2. Mike says:

    Sadly it’s not festival experiences that have caught me off-guard (I’m currently living in the epicentre of Western Imperialism, so it’s all just MORE traditional), it was the smaller day-to-day changes in language that really threw me when I moved here.

    For example: “Pants” meaning underwear, “Asian” covering what I might refer to as either “Indian” or “Middle-eastern” – and “Oriental” being what I would otherwise refer to as “Asian”, etc.

    I think it’s good that you have such a large shift, it kinda means you _know_ things are going to be different. I’ll be happily talking about something and suddenly people will look at me funny or smirk and I have _no idea_ why. Subtlety’s a bastard.


  3. Pingback: Yes Mi-Kan! Japan’s Mandarin Orange Obsession | OTAKU LOUNGE

  4. Ged Maybury says:

    Most of this already knew (except about THE WRONG CAKE!!! – How dismaying for you.)

    So now I know you live in Ehime Prefecture, and I’m going to offer the conjecture that, since you’re a Kiwi (and obviously brighter than a Christmas tree decoration made of Mandarin peal with an LED stuck in it) that you have a degree of some sort in agriculture and that is why you are there. (But not in the orange-growing side of things.)


  5. Ged Maybury says:

    D’uh! Kiwi-fruit, of course!


    • I’m impressed by your diligence and inventiveness – I would have expected nothing else from the author of “Across The Stonewind Sky”, of course, but it’s still remarkable to see demonstrated. In this particular case, however, it has led you to conclusions which are far more flattering than the truth. My undergrad degree was in social sciences (modesty prevents me from saying which one), but I am not currently employing it except in the general sense of it providing an educational background. Part of the rich tapestry of life, as it were.

      And yes, the cake was rather dismaying.


  6. Pingback: Tastes of Japan Pt 2 | Speculative OP

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