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Christmas in Tokyo, Part 1.

Posted by Shaun

Christmas isn't nearly as big of a holiday in Japan as it is in the US. Christmas is very commercialized here, just like in the US. You can buy all kinds of Christmas decorations and Christmas-themed presents, and TV shows have Christmas specials, but I didn't see much of the "Christmas is about family" theme we have back home. I'm not sure if famous Christmas specials like Miracle on 34th Street have been translated into Japanese or if Japan has any of it's own Christmas movies. I'd be a little surprised if it did.  Christmas is viewed mostly as a date holiday, a bit like Valentine's Day. This showed in the fact that the most crowded place we went was the purikura floor of a game center. I'll come back to that later.

The thing that I missed most in Japan was the sense of a Christmas season. Knox has a really long winter break, six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years, so I'm used to being home, with no particular work to do, helping my mom bake cookies and, if I don't help decorate much myself, getting to sit around and look at the decorations while I'm home. Since I had class until the 22nd, I didn't get that feeling of Christmas preparation. Plus my host family didn't really do anything Christmasy before the 24th. There were some lights up at the college near my house, but I completely forgot to go anywhere else to see the spectacular illuminations people kept telling me about. By the time it got dark I just wanted to be home. Our resident director did let us bake some Christmas cookies at his apartment, and we did a program Secret Santa. Both of those things were a lot of fun.

My original plan for Christmas was to spend it with my sister and our friend who's in the Navy, stationed in Japan. Make it a little hometown reunion thing, and exchange some presents. Then one of my Japan Study friends, Lynne, told me how much she was missing her family during the holidays, and I invited her along to join us for whatever it was we ended up doing. Plans changed frequently over the two days or so before Christmas, but let's start at the beginning.

My sister came to stay with my host family the day after I got done with classes. Our first order of business was getting all of her stuff from Tokyo Station to my house in Saitama on various trains. I shouldn't make fun, because I'll probably need to buy an additional suitcase by the end of the year, or ship a lot of stuff back. It's just natural. People study abroad, and they buy stuff. It happens. But our third order of business was finding my sister an extra suitcase.

You may have noticed I skipped "second." Our second order of business, on the 23rd, was to head to Yokohama to meet our Navy friend, Kali.

I went into this blog with the full intention of protecting people's identities, but I've been really inconsistent about that. I've tried not to talk about where my host family lives and that's why I haven't done a blog post about Japanese houses, for example, but I'm pretty sure my personal info is all over the place. This blog is scarily easy to find on Google, and everyone knows that there's no such thing as anonymity anymore in the internet age.  Most of my readers are people who know me already anyway, and it would just look silly and cumbersome if I called everyone "Navy-friend" and "My Sister" and "Japan Study Friend #5" or whatever. So I guess my official position is that I'm just going to use names. Let me know if you're mentioned on this blog and you have an issue with that.

After that brief interlude, we return to your regularly scheduled blog entry.
So where were we? Yokohama, right? My sister, Shannon, really wanted to see Yokohama China Town, mostly so she could buy a particular cup with pandas on it. You can ask her about that. So we met Kali at Yokohama station and then headed over to Motomachi-Chuukagai station on the Minato-Mirai line. Like most of our best-laid plans, we didn't really do a whole lot except shop at souvenir stores. I had thought we would stick around for a while and have a nice sit-down Chinese dinner, but somehow we ended up at a Jonathon's restaurant in Ikebukuro instead. It was probably for the best, as much as I still do really want an egg roll. None of us know Chinese food very well. I know Shannon and I need to read the descriptions on the menu to even order American Chinese food. And it's incredibly hard to order Chinese food in Japanese, since the food names tend to be in, well, Chinese kanji characters.

So we bought enormous niku-man (buns filled with meat) from a street vendor instead.
The niku-man in Yokohama China Town are way better than the ones I occasionally have for breakfast. It was amazing. I also ate a momo-man (peach bun) which had peach filling and it was quite yummy.

Then for some reason we decided to go all the way back to Ikebukuro, which was closer to home for Shannon and I, but probably twice as far for Kali. We were, once again, lured there by the promise of shopping. We wanted to see Otome Road (Maiden Road), which is supposed to be the more female-centered version of Akihabara, the center of Japan's (and possibly the world's) anime nerd culture. Since most of the anime nerds are men, this tends to mean you stumble across a lot of animated boobs attached to animated women when you go to Akihabara. Otome Road is known for lots of doujinshi (fan-made comic) shops catering more towards women's interests than men's, but we didn't end up going into any of them. That was probably for the best. Instead we headed for the 7-story Animate store and looked at anime character goods. I'm so glad my interest in anime for anime's sake started to wane before I came to Japan and I haven't caught up with any of the recent series'. While I feel sorta confused and left out whenever I look at anime merchandise, I also save a lot of money.
Another thing Otome Road is known for is butler cafes, as an answer to Akihabara's maid cafes. I haven't done a whole lot of research into this yet, but being served food and called "ojou-sama" (milady) by well-dressed men is definitely on my list of things to do while I'm in this country. Especially since I've started watching Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de,  a drama that stars an heiress working as a detective and her sassy, silly, mystery-solving butler. I can write more about this show later if anyone's interested. Heck, I'm sorta obsessed with it, so I'll probably end up talking about it whether you like it or not, once I catch up on all the episodes I've missed.

Okay, Shaun, focus. That's two tangents now. I think you're over your limit.
After eating at a family restaurant we headed back for the night. The next day was Christmas Eve.
My host family had a Christmas party with our extended family (my friend Sam's host family), but that wasn't until the evening, so Shannon and I decided to see Asakusa and Ueno. We only really got to see Asakusa before we ran out of time, but it was nice, for me at least, to see the temple and eat all kinds of snacks and pretend I wasn't in the city for a while.

In front of the big Christmas tree at Ueno station, on our way to Asakusa

In front of Sensou-ji, the temple at Asakusa. Yes, I know, my eyes are closed.
We stopped at a lot of different food stands and ate age-manjuu (age - ah-gay, not the English word "age," means "fried"), amazake, dorayaki, and more age-manjuu. Manjuu is a bread with filling, so age-manjuu is a fried, filled cake thing. When you get them at a stand, they're hot and fresh and so delicious. And they come in all kinds of flavors. Last time I was at Asakusa I just had plain flavor (red bean paste), but this time I tried sesame (with red bean paste) and sakura (cherry), which was amazing. I love the taste of real cherries, instead of cherry flavor, and oh man, it was delicious. Amazake is literally sweet sake, and it was also yum. Served hot, gentle fruity flavor, with barely any alcohol taste. It was the perfect thing to drink outside out of a tiny paper cup on a cold Christmas Eve. I feel like I've already talked about dorayaki, but it's basically a pancake with red bean paste in it and I think sweet potato too? This one was way better than the convenience store dorayaki I bought after listening to my J-pop professor talk about how much Doraemon likes to eat dorayaki.

The Tokyo Sky Tree, to be finished in Spring 2011, and Sensou-ji, first built in 645 and then rebuilt after WWII
When we were leaving Asakusa because we realized it was almost time for the Christmas party, we ran into a bunch of people dressed as Santa and handing out snacks to kids. We played our Dorky Foreigner cards and took a picture with them. How could we not?

Don't look at my hat. I don't know why it looks so huge in this picture. Look at the reindeer on the left instead.
The Christmas party was a lot of fun. Shannon got to meet Sam and his host family, and we ate yummy food Missus cooked and Christmas cake. I was surprised the whole party fit in our little living room, but it did. I finally figured out when I was talking to Shannon why I like Tamaki-san, Sam's host mom and my host aunt, so much (she originally told me to call her okaasan, but everyone in my house calls her by her name, Tamaki-san, so it's confusing. I'm talking about the same person I was calling okaasan earlier, though). Anyway, Tamaki-san reminds me of my grandma. She's loud, she's friendly, and she's politically incorrect, and it's a lot of fun. For example, she brought Sam, Shannon, me, and Sam's friend Stephanie small Christmas presents, announcing "Today it's just the gaijin!" Gaijin is a shortening of the word gaikokujin, meaning person from a foreign country, and it's frequently used derisively. When you take out the "koku," the "country" part, the word basically just turns into "outside person" - "outsider." I mean, both words mean "foreigner," but one feels even more "other-ing" than the other. So, Tamaki-san tells everyone at the party that today she only has presents for the gaijin, and then Mister mutters a correction of "gaikokujin." Of course, no one was going to take offense to Tamaki-san, but it was pretty funny. I really enjoyed myself at the Christmas party.

I'm going to divide this post into two to make it easier to read, so part two will be Christmas day, with a lot more pictures.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Reading your blogs makes me hungry. You are always talking about delicious food! We have a new pastor at church who is from Korea. He brought in a dessert yesterday that was a kind of 'cake' that had white bean paste inside and was surrounded by some sort of gummy rice flour that was colored with powdered edible plants. quite interesting...tasty in a weird way. I was bragging about the cute foods you had made in class and it turns out his wife is a trained 'food stylist' which is what you were doing making cute food... small world! Now on to part 2! :_) Love, Aunt Jody

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bring me home one of those huge bun things! they look delicious!
    Sorry. I got distracted with the food again. We are on diets here from eating way tooooooooo many sweets over the holidays. I definitely ate your share of cookies! :)
    love from Belvidere!

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