If you grew up in a Christmas-celebrating country and have experienced a Christmas in Japan, chances are that it just didn’t feel right. Of course all countries that celebrate Christmas do it in a slightly different way, but Japan does it extra different, replacing turkey, Christmas cookies and quality family time with fried chicken, strawberry shortcake and the biggest date night of the year. If you’d like this Christmas to me a little more like the one you remember, cancel that KFC order and read on: with our handy Christmas guide, you now have everything you need to do the holidays right!
To really get into the Christmas spirit you’ll need to decorate, and if you’ve got the space you’ll want the ultimate holiday decoration: a Christmas tree. They come in three types: fake trees, potted live trees, and cut live trees. Fake trees can be found at home centers, department stores and shops like Tokyu Hands, Don Quijote, Costco and Yuzawaya. Potted trees are widely available at florists and home centers, the most common type being the “Goldcrest” (a brightly colored and not very Christmasy variety of cypress) which are priced from under 1000 yen for tiny table-top versions to over 20,000 yen for real Christmas tree sizes. The more traditional “momi no ki” (fir) are about double the price and can sometimes be rather small and threadbare. While these potted trees are certainly more attractive than fake trees and seem more eco-friendly than cutting down a live tree, you might want to think twice before investing in one: they are actually quite hard to care for and rarely survive to the next year (dried-out brown former Christmas trees are a common sight in gardens and balconies by summer time).
Nothing beats a real live cut tree, and they are easier to buy than ever. National Azabu and Coscto have them, but Ikea has the best deal of all: their Christmas trees (well-shaped firs from 110 to 120cm in height) are only 1990 yen, and if you bring yours back after Christmas not only will they dispose of it for you, they’ll give you a 1990 yen coupon. Costco trees will have to be cut up and disposed of yourself (usually the pieces must be 30 cm or under; check your ward or city office for garbage rules), and for 5000 yen National Azabu will pick up your tree after Christmas and throw it away for you.
For decorating your tree (as well as the rest of your home), all of the above mentioned stores carry Christmas ornaments, lights and other decorations, but if you’re serious about Christmas you’ll want to head to Asakusabashi, a wholesale shopping district. The area is full of shops selling beads and jewelry findings, Japanese dolls, stationary, and seasonal decorations, and in the months before Christmas the stores are jam-packed with every kind of Christmas decoration imaginable. Most shops are happy to sell retail, and although prices no longer seem as good compared to newer and bigger competitors like Yuzawaya and Costco, no single store can beat this district for the selection and sheer volume of Christmas doodads. It’s easy to spend a whole day here, or at least half a day: the other half could be spent Christmas shopping in Akihabara, just one stop away on the Sobu Line.
One final piece of decoration advice: the Japanese like to put up their decorations early (and take them down on Christmas Day itself!), so if you wait until mid-December to deck your halls you’ll likely find prices on decorations greatly reduced. Yuzawaya offers the best discounts, but check your local home center.
Practically every restaurant in Tokyo will be offering a Christmas menu of some kind, but read on for some of the best. Hobgoblin will again be offering its traditional roast turkey dinner for 5000 yen at its Shibuya, Roppongi and Akasaka pubs. Four seatings are available from lunch to dinner on Christmas Day only. TY Harbor Brewery will have a less traditional Christmas dinner on December 23rd and 24th; highlights of the 9000 yen course include foie gras terrine, salmon confit and roast beef filet. The Tokyo Hilton’s restaurants will be serving Christmas brunch, lunch and dinner from December 20th to the 25th. The buffet at The Marble Lounge, featuring crab legs, roast beef, turkey and a fabulous dessert selection, is especially recommended for families: diners enjoy a great view of the 7-meter Christmas tree and children will love the wandering magician and clown making balloon animals. Brunch is served from the 20th to 25th and costs 5950 yen for adults, 3200 for children; dinner is on from the 20th to 24th for 7560 yen. Paddy Foley’s Irish Pub is serving a three-course turkey dinner from December 22nd to 25th for 4500 yen. Roti Tokyo Midtown and Roti Roppongi are both offering a variety of Christmas lunches and dinners; try the Christmas dinner buffet at the Roppongi location on the 25th. The dinner costs 4500 yen for adults and 2500 for children and includes roast turkey, beef and ham with all the trimmings, as well as some decadent desserts. Other restaurants like Meguro Tavern, The Pink Cow, Good Honest Grub and Trader Vic’s will be serving foreigner-friendly traditional meals, while places like Gordon Ramsay at Conrad Tokyo, Oak Door, Union Square, and New York Grill will serve fancier dinners (think foie gras and truffles rather than turkey and mashed potatoes).
If you’d rather have Christmas dinner at home, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s never been easier to find turkey in Japan. Nissin, Kinokuniya, National Azabu, and Niku no Hanamasa all sell frozen turkeys. Online, order a bird from The Foreign Buyers’ Club, The Flying Pig and The Meat Guy. The latter has the best prices and selection of all, starting with a 1.9 kilogram baby turkey (a good size for a Japanese size oven) for just 2800 yen. For the fixings, most of the above shops should be well-stocked, as should Kaldi, Seijo Ishii, Meidi-ya and Ikea. For champagne and other festive spirits try Nissin, Wine Market Party and Yamaya. And for dessert, there is no shortage of places offering fancy Japanese style Christmas cakes, but for a real taste of home nothing beats the cakes and pies found at Kyle’s Good Finds.
It’s not hard to find pretty Christmas lights in Tokyo: just go to any hotel, shopping area or business district and you’ll see some impressive displays. In fact, the Japanese are mad for Christmas illuminations, and there are far too many light-up spots to list here. But here are three worth going out of your way for: The Marunouchi area features Lightopia, with four special Christmas light theme areas (in addition to the already-impressive street lights and decorated businesses in the neighborhood). One theme is a return of last year’s Ambient Candle Park, with Wadakura-Funsui Koen transformed by 700 candles protected by lanterns decorated with local elementary school childrens’ wishes for peace and a clean environment. December 19th to 28th (Ambient Candle Park finishes on the 24th) Tokyo Midtown Christmas 2008 has four distinct illumination zones, including a return of last year’s popular Starlight Garden, with thousands of lights depicting constellations and a galaxy. Also, in commemoration of 150 year of Franco-Japan relations Sakura Dori is lit up with the same style of lights as the found on the Champ-Elysees. Until December 25th. l And Shinjuku Southern Terrace’s popular lights are back with Shinjuku Terrace City 2008, and this year the entire Terrace City area is getting in on the act. Until December 25th (Southern Terrace’s lights stay up until February 15th).
For those wishing to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, these are some of the churches offering Christmas services in English (note that train and subway schedules prevent most churches from offering true Midnight Mass). Sharon International Fellowship has a bilingual (English and Japanese) Candlelight Worship Service followed by a Christmas Party at 6:00pm on December 24th. Catholic Church of St. Joseph, Tsukiji Parish will have a Christmas Eve Mass at 7:00 and a Christmas Mass the next morning at 9:30. Franciscan Chapel Center offers several English services: on December 24th a Children’s Mass at 4:00pm, Christmas Carols at 8:30pm and Christmas Eve Mass at 9:00. The next day Christmas Day Mass is held at 8:00am, 10:00am, 12:00pm and 6:00pm. St. Anselm’s Meguro Church has Christmas Eve Mass at 9:00 and a bilingual (English and Japanese) Christmas Day Mass at 11:00am. Tokyo Baptist Church will hold Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at 5:00, 7:00 and 9:00. St. Paul International Lutheran Church will have a Christmas Eve Candlelight Carol and Holy Communion at 8:30 and Christmas Day Worship with Holy Communion at 11:00am. St. Ignatius Church holds Christmas Eve Mass at 11:00 and Christmas Mass at 12:00pm. Tokyo Union Church offers Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Services at 4:00, 7:00 and 9:00 and Christmas Day Worship Service at 11:00am.
With Christmas in Japan being an almost completely commercial affair and Tokyo being one of the great shopping cities of the world, you’ll have no trouble finding perfect gifts for all of your loved ones. But if you’re a little turned off by the unbridled consumerism of the season, or just want to do something different this year, consider giving a charity gift. Oxfam and Alternative Gifts International both allow you to donate a range of goods and services to people in need all over the globe. Examples are such as goats, pigs, and other farm animals, equipment like mosquito nets, solar cookers and wheelchairs, projects like water purification and healthcare, as well as training and education programs. You don’t have to be well-off to donate: a disease prevention kit costs just $22US, $4US keeps a Kenyan street child housed and fed for a day, and for more expensive items you can buy smaller shares. Some charities also offer gift certificates that allow your recipient to choose how your donation will help. A good one is Kiva, an innovative micro-lender that lets you lend money to entrepreneurs around the world. Finally, if you really need to give a material gift, make it count. Unicef House in Shinagawa carries Unicef’s gifts and greeting cards; you can also order from Unicef online or ask for a free catalogue. People Tree has branches in Omotesando and Jiugaoka as well as an online shop.