No matter which way I looked at it, I knew this Christmas would be the biggest hurdle I’ve faced yet. Having never spent the day away from my family home, let alone my family, it was always going to be a challenge.
Japan celebrates Christmas in a completely different way to the Western world, and quite often it shows. This year the holiday happened to fall on a weekday, and given that Japan isn’t a traditionally Christian country, workplaces stayed open regardless. Thankfully, my schools had finished for fuyu yasumi (or winter break), so I had the week off and I was free to do whatever I wanted.
But not being at work over Christmas meant that in the two weeks before, I had several of the other teachers ask me if I was going home to England. Now, Christmas is seen as more of a romantic holiday than a family-orientated one, so I doubt that they meant any harm, but with every kaerimasen, every time I had to explain that I wasn’t going back, my homesickness got worse and worse.
It took a teary Skype call to my Dad for me to snap out of it, and decide that I was going to make the most of a different kind of Christmas.
Still, it didn’t stop me from hunting down home comforts in an effort to feel some kind of familiarity. I bought a Christmas tree from Don Quijote, and using a combination of Daiso decorations and stuff sent by my parents, I decorated my room to make it feel festive. I bought a (definitely overpriced) Terry’s Chocolate Orange from an import shop and I bought things to make pigs in blankets with.
The pigs in blankets didn’t taste as good as the ones at home, but they were an acceptable substitute using what was available.
Christmas Eve night was spent in central Yokohama, making our way to the InterContinental Hotel, where the Red Shoes Junior Chorus does an annual carol concert in the lobby area. It’s a free event, but even if they charged entry it’d be worth it because those children are talented – singing songs in both Japanese and English. Standing there and listening to them made it feel like Christmas and I’m glad I’d decided to go.
About a fifteen minute walk away from the hotel is the Red Brick Warehouse, where the Christmas Markets were still being held, but on the way there were several pop-up stalls, food vans and live performances so it definitely took us longer to get there.
Seriously, Yokohama is the place to see free entertainment on the street, especially on a busy night like Christmas Eve.
We sat in the market area, with our cheese and gluwein, and a group of (slightly intoxicated) Japanese people came over to talk to us. After a friendly and somewhat bilingual conversation we left, leaving me feeling welcome but also a little bit confused about what’d just happened. I mean, Japanese people don’t usually approach foreigners and invite them for a chat but I have a feeling the alcohol may have had something to do with it.
The next morning I treated myself to a lie-in… which is something I haven’t done on Christmas morning for as long as I can remember. There was no urgency to get up and open presents because I was saving all of mine for later and I had nothing planned until lunchtime.
And lunchtime was where the day felt totally different. It’s not a secret that a widespread advertising campaign in the 70s made KFC the number one Christmas food in Japan and even nearly fifty years later it’s still going strong. Buckets of chicken legitimately have to be pre-ordered if you want food for the whole family, but fortunately, we didn’t have to.
Thanks to a combination of going while everyone was at work and only wanting smaller portions, we were able to get ourselves some chicken with no reservation and no queue.
Up until that point, I hadn’t touched a western take-away chain since arriving in Japan and it seemed weird to be breaking that streak on Christmas Day of all days. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
A short walk later we were in Sakuragicho and heading to the Landmark Tower for a quick trip to the pub and some Christmas shopping.
Now, I’ve had anime stuff on my Christmas list almost every year for the last decade, so to be able to go to the original shops themselves on Christmas Day was a new experience for sure. Our top destination was the Pokémon Center, hoping to find some limited edition merchandise for the festive period.
Our search was largely unsuccessful, but they had a raffle in the back of the shop where you had the chance to win one of a few prizes for 300 yen. I figured that even if I got the cheapest prize, it would still be a good deal and I liked pretty much every one available. I did end up getting the cheapest – four rolls of Pikachu themed washi tape – but I was happy. They probably would’ve cost more than that anyway.
Next it was the Jump Store and the Ghibli-themed shop next door, where I bought myself the Kiki’s Delivery Service mug I’d been wanting for the last month. The display said they were running out of stock, so I grabbed it while I could.
It was getting close to dinner time and we went home. My evening is my family’s morning, so I’d organised to Skype them in time to open presents together, just like usual, as if there was no distance between us. Obviously it didn’t feel the same but it was what I needed.
Gifts unwrapped and Christmas wishes exchanged, I signed off, feeling a complex combination of emotions that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. I took some time to recover, allowing ten minutes to reorient myself.
After all, I had a challenge to face: cooking Christmas dinner.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a challenge I had to face alone so across two kitchens with one gas ring and one microwave each, we managed to co-ordinate a decent-sized meal with nearly everything you’d expect from a British Christmas. We had to use chicken instead of turkey because it’s not really eaten here but we still had meat, vegetables, and pigs in blankets. The closest thing we could find to gravy in our local supermarkets was the packet stew sauce, which is almost the same when diluted slightly. Roast potatoes were a little difficult because of the distinct lack of oven, so I tried to experiment by steaming slices of potato then frying them in butter afterwards to make the outsides crispy. And it actually worked, so I’ll consider it a win.
It definitely took a little bit of creative thinking but we pulled it off.
It’s not Christmas without a good Christmas movie and given that I had somehow reached the age of 24 and I’d never seen Die Hard, it was time. It turns out that it was probably the perfect film to choose this year. Not quite a traditional Christmas but still festive, with some hints of Japan showing through, it seemed fitting.
Just under a week later, it was the last day of the year and my friends and I had organised to meet in Shibuya again to spend New Year’s Eve together. However, we weren’t meeting everyone until later in the evening, so there was plenty of time to do a bit of sightseeing around Tokyo first.
In Japan, it’s traditional to visit a temple to celebrate the New Year, so where better to go than the oldest one in Tokyo? Sensō-ji was founded by the Sumida River (in what’s now known as Asakusa) nearly 1,400 years ago and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
It sometimes feels weird being a tourist in Japan now, having lived here for two months and having an official residents’ card, but at the end of the day I’m still relatively new to the country and I’m allowed to have fun. So I took a selfie in front of Kaminarimon: the first gate that marks the entrance to Sensō-ji.
Leading up to the temple is the Nakamise Shōtengai, a shopping street that looks like it belongs in a Ghibli movie and probably the most touristy place I’ve seen in Japan so far. There’s a good variety of shops there – mainly different kinds of souvenirs –and if you want to see something that just screams ‘stereotype’, this would be a good place to try. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way either.
Because it was New Year’s Eve, the shōtengai was packed with people heading to Sensō-ji, but I have a feeling it’s not much quieter at other times in the year. When we got there, food stalls were being set up for the celebrations later on in the evening, but none were ready to sell yet so we couldn’t buy anything.
The temple itself is beautiful and I can see why it’s so popular.
Later on in the evening, we hopped across to Shibuya and we all met by the Hachiko statue before finding something to eat. If you’re staying in Japan long-term and miss cheap pizza, I’d recommend Shakey’s if you can find one, because their lunch and dinner buffets are around 1,000 to 1,500 yen and it’s tabehoudai so you can eat as much as you want (including dessert pizzas).
After that, it was izakaya time. Izakayas are the closest Japanese equivalent to a pub but loads offer nomihoudai, or all you can drink, and it seemed like a cheaper option than paying club prices for drinks later on.
We’d decided to skip Shibuya Scramble at midnight because it’s absolutely mental and besides, it was best to be somewhere inside and warm instead of trying to find somewhere to go after the clock struck twelve. Being out on New Year’s Eve was new to me, because I usually have a quiet night watching the countdown at home. But that was when I lived in a small town where I ran the risk of bumping into people I recognised.
The club we were in had a TV showing the countdown broadcast, and one person was being interviewed in front of Emperor Guan’s Shrine in Yokohama and I instantly recognised it. I had a momentary thought of “that’s where I live!” which was shortly followed by a “damn, I live in Japan” because sometimes, I forget just how far I’ve come.
Then sooner than I was expecting, san… ni… ichi… and it was 2018.
There I was, in a Shibuya nightclub with my friends, dancing with drag queens to Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, and everything felt so surreal. One thing’s for sure, if you’d told me where I’d be a year ago, I wouldn’t have completely believed you, despite already being in the application process to work here.
On the way home, the sun began to rise halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama. In Japan, the first sunrise of the year is a big deal, so we were fortunate enough to have escaped the urban jungle just in time to see it before arriving in another city. Watching the golden glow creep over the horizon, it hit me that this year I turn 25 – an age that seems more intimidating than it should. After all, it’s only a quarter of a century.
Haha… haha… ha.
By the time we got back to the apartments, the sun had properly risen. I’m very lucky in the fact that if I take a slight detour before going home, I can get a view of Fuji on a good day, so I suggested we tried to see it. And sure enough, almost as if the mountain had dressed for the occasion, there it stood with the snow-topped peak clearly visible. I swear it was prettier than usual and none of the pictures I took were able to capture exactly what I was seeing.
There were a couple of locals passing by, and despite feeling absolutely zero shame, I wondered if it seemed weird that we were just looking at the landscape; a landscape that they’d probably seen thousands of times. But one man stopped to talk to us, agreeing that the sight was beautiful and wishing us a happy new year.
Maybe he’s one of the people that appreciate the beauty in their everyday surroundings. Maybe after seeing us appreciate it, he could take a step back and see it from an outsider’s perspective. Either way, it was a great moment.
Then it was straight to bed, where I sent my family New Year messages and streamed the London fireworks on my phone before passing out for the next few hours.
I thought hard about my resolutions for this year, and I definitely think that resolutions on a sliding scale are much easier to keep. That’s what I did in 2017, as my goal was to say yes to more things and push myself out of my comfort zone. I’d say that was successful, having completely uprooted my life for a new adventure.
This year, I want to be open to more people and expand my social circle while still maintaining my existing relationships. Living in Japan does mean that my friends at home sometimes get overlooked and I don’t want that, but living in Japan also means that I need to make more friends who live here.
I have some amazing people in my life and I’m so grateful, so here’s to an excellent 2018.
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu!