Letters From Japan ~ Vol XI ~ Holidays


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

Well, it's been a long time since my last missive. Things always seem to get rather hectic towards the end of the year, don't they? The topic this time is "holidays" and since my last long letter was in October, I'll start from there.

The week after I returned from Guam was Halloween and, at a friend's urging, I went along on the annual unofficial "official" Halloween Yamanote ride. The Yamanote is the train line that circles Tokyo like a belt-way. For over a decade now non-official delegates from the Western foreign community have dressed up in costume and taken over a particular train on Halloween weekend, riding the entire loop around Tokyo. My friend Shinji and I dressed as Beavis & Butthead since he's a great fan of theirs. A few quick shots of Jack Daniels to repel any feelings of conspicuousness and we were off.

We arrived in Shinjuku with fifteen minutes to spare and spotted the growing crowd easily -- I don't know how many in all, over 200 anyway. Soon we boarded the 9pm train bound for Ikebukuro and it was bedlam. For the entire hour it took around the city, the cars were filled with ear deafening noise from the raucus crowd; each stop was like a "Chinese fire drill" with people running from car to car during the 15 second interval. Some took advantage of a rare freedom and climbed up onto the luggage racks, lying prone. One thing was for sure, I had never seen the Yamanote like this before!

Most of the Japanese we came across at each stop were amused by the antics but wisely declined to board, preferring instead to wait the three minutes for the next train. Of course, there were Japanese on the ride itself but most were like my friend, "tainted" by Western ways and, therefore, not "true" Japanese. Those unfortunate Japanese that were on the train when we boarded were taken by surprise and were not happy campers, however, and deboarded shortly. Oh, well, life is not a box of chocolates -- wait a minute, it IS a box of chocolates. Something like that.

The next American holiday, Thanksgiving, was three weeks later. It came and went with little fanfare. It's so easy to totally forget unobserved holidays here. Of course, Thanksgiving is hard to forget with all the Thanksgiving dinners and gatherings ingrained in my consciousness and, coincidentally, Japan has a national holiday on November 23rd. Even more surprising is that it's translated as Labour Thanksgiving Day. It's not a particularly special day here; the most special thing about it is that it's a day off from work. So, most conveniently, we do get a day off on Thanksgiving or thereabouts. On the day after Thanksgiving I had lunch at a sandwich shop in the Palace Hotel where they offer a turkey and cranberry sandwich on their regular menu. I hesitated for a few seconds thinking, "well, it IS Thanksgiving time..." and then said "naaa" and ordered pastrami, my usual, instead. Well, it was a thought anyway.

Soon Christmas time rolled around. And, surprisingly perhaps, Christmas IS "observed" here. That is to say, all the stores put up Christmas decorations and play Christmas music. Even the streets are decorated with lights and decorations; the tree-lined avenue in Omotesando is probably the prettiest, reminiscent as it is of Paris' Champs Elysees.

Although the decorations are festive and, perhaps, somewhat comforting as a reminder of home, I sometimes found them to be annoying. I felt like knocking on peoples' noggins, "Moshi Moshi (Hello)? Excuse me but this is JAPAN. Why are you playing Christmas music and observing a Christian holiday?!" Actually, I already knew the answer. Like so many things, it has been taken by the Japanese, digested and regurgitated into something different. First and foremost it is a commercial holiday in Japan. It oftens seems that way back in the U.S. but the Christian undercurrent found in the U.S. is totally absent here. They have truly taken the Christ out of Christmas and created "Xmas" in its purest form.

The main difference besides that is that the Christmas holiday here is a romantic holiday, not a family holiday. It's kind of a super Valentine's Day which you are to spend with the one you love (or like anyway), exchanging gifts and, if finances permit, enjoying a fancy dinner. For those without a partner or date, it can be a lonely day.

In any case, I opted not to experience the year-end holidays in Japan and went home instead figuring I'd be able to get the most amount of consecutive time off. Oshougatsu (New Years) is Japan's biggest holiday but I figured there's always next year to experience the ringing of the temple bells, the New Years foods, and the like.

I'll send this out now so you can read this while I get started on the next letter which I think will be about Reverse Culture Shock!

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: January 31, 1995
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005