Japan from the inside out

Nippon Noel: Let them eat Christmas cake!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 24, 2007

There were plums and prunes and cherries,
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too
There was nutmeg, cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Such that work up a fine stomach ache
That could kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.

Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake
Words and Music: C. Frank Horn, 1883

THE ONLY CAKES I ATE during my American Christmases were fruitcakes, and we children didn’t care for them any more than Mr. Horn cared for Miss Fogarty’s creation. They were dry, lacked icing, and had strange gummy things baked into them that didn’t taste like fruit at all.

Even at a young age we suspected they were made more for the sake of tradition than for delectation. Luckily, not every family served them and they weren’t an important part of the day. I’ve never met anyone who says they enjoy eating them, though fruitcake aficionados must exist, as they’re still baked and sold. Perhaps it helps to be nutty.


Shortly after we were married, my Japanese wife saw an advertisement for a bona fide fruitcake available by mail order, and she was curious enough to try one. Well, curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but it almost killed me. She didn’t like it at all, and I wound up eating most of it because I dislike throwing away food. My fruitcake quota has now been filled for the next three lifetimes.

And that is the extent of my connection with Christmas cake or its related traditions. As many people now know, the Japanese have their own Christmas cake tradition, and most Japanese are surprised when they discover that Americans don’t. (There is a tendency here to think that all imported customs are American and all loan words originate from English.)

There are as many Christmas traditions as there are ethnic groups, but perhaps the Japanese borrowed the idea of Christmas cake from England and the Commonwealth countries. There, fruitcake seems to be (or to once have been) a regular part of the day.

The Japanese do not prefer heavy cakes, however. The French influence is apparent in most of the pastry dishes produced and sold here. But I’m not sure that the French would want to claim parentage of the Japanese Christmas cake, as it more closely resembles an American strawberry shortcake that uses limp sponge cake instead of the firmer, more masculine variety. Though it can be as large as a regular cake, it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a glorified pastry.

There is some debate about when Christmas cakes became popular in Japan. Most people seem to agree that the confectioner Fujiya Co. came up with the idea, but the attributions for their time of introduction range from the 1920s to the 1950s.


It might be that they were first sold in the 20s, but became popular in their present form in the 50s and 60s when most households had refrigerators. Before then, sponge cakes had butter cream icing that didn’t need refrigeration.

The first photo shows a special Christmas cake made by Radishbo-ya, a Tokyo-based company that sells additive-free food products for home delivery. This year, they began sales of Christmas cakes without allergens to meet the demand for the estimated 330,000 Japanese children with food allergies.

Radishbo-ya (or Radish-boya—their Japanese website has both spellings) has developed 12 Christmas confections that use no dairy products, as well as three products for the traditional New Year’s dinner. One way they pull this off is to substitute pumpkin cream for fresh dairy cream. Cake prices range from 268 yen ($US 2.35) to 1,512 yen ($US 13.26), tax included, and they also sell the ingredients separately for the do-it-yourself bakers.

Perhaps you would prefer the Christmas cake–actually, the news report called it a “monument”—in the second photo, unless you are allergic to ostentation and conspicuous consumption. The lady in the picture leaves no doubt about what her choice would be. The photo was taken during its display at the Osaka branch of the Takashimaya Department Store. It’s not designed for eating, however. Rather than toppings, it is garnished with roughly 300 million yen (more than $US 2.63 million) worth of gemstones.

Well, to be accurate, it’s partially edible. The base is a confection made with the sugar used for baking. This Christmas cake was created by a young Kansai-based artist named Rei.

Takashimaya says it is displaying the monument to get everyone into the Christmas spirit, presumably because coming down to the store for a look will cause customers to splurge once they see all the other wonderful merchandise available. Following its presentation in Osaka, the monument was sent to the Takashimaya Kyoto store, and it’s now at the JR Nagoya outlet until the 25th.


In keeping with the traditions of the season, you can buy it if you really want it. A Takashimaya spokesman said that anyone was welcome to come in and talk turkey about the price. Perhaps they would have found takers during the Bubble Period about 20 years ago, but I’m not so sure about 2007.

And what would an Ampontan Christmas post be without another great tree? The one in the third photo is on display in the lobby of the JR Marugame Station in Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture.

The tree itself is trimmed with 250 uchiwa, or hand fans, made using traditional techniques. No, they are not leftover giveaways from summertime promotions. They are originals created by a local design studio, so it’s a shame we can’t have a close-up of the illustrations on the fans themselves. The report says they mesh well with the lights on the tree.

The tree itself is four meters high, 1.6 meters in diameter, and made with a bamboo framework to which have been attached leaves of the hinoki, or Japanese cypress. It will be up until the 25th, so if you’re taking the train to or from Marugame today or tomorrow, don’t pass up the chance to see it!

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