Japan from the inside out

Nippon Noel 2009 (1): Just some paper, flowers, and lights

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 4, 2009

THOUGH JAPAN is not a Christian country, the people know a good festival when they see one, and that’s why Christmas is celebrated in public spaces here as a winter festival of light. Two years ago, we had a series of posts called Nippon Noel presenting some of those public displays, which often involve a combination of light and Christmas trees. Sometimes they combine the idea of tree shapes and items unique to Japan, such as fishing boat pennants. But because Christmas for most Japanese is a postwar phenomenon, they have no long-standing tradition of decorating real evergreens in the home. (Those Japanese who do have decorated Christmas trees in the home use small, artificial trees.)

That means the Christmas evergreen here is more symbol than tangible object, which has allowed the Japanese to employ their artistic sense and create public displays based on the concept of “Christmas tree” that are quite striking, attractive, and often unique. You can see past posts on that topic by clicking on the Christmas tag at the end of this post. One even features a story about a Christmas tree at a public aquarium lit by an electric eel; in fact, he’s providing the juice again this year, according to a report I saw yesterday. Last year I didn’t have the time to collect any stories, but here are three for Christmas 2009.

The first is a display of two trees, or to be more accurate, conical structures representing trees, at the Chiyoda Ward office in Tokyo. Rather than the usual glass ornaments and tinsel, these are trimmed with decorations made from washi, or traditional Japanese paper, created by about 100 local primary school students and their parents. Both trees are 2.3 meters tall and are illuminated from the inside. They’ll be up until 25 December, which is not a public holiday here. That’s when people start to get geared up for New Year’s Day, which is the real yearend celebration.

The Hakone Gora Park in Kanagawa doesn’t use a real tree for its interior decorations either. A large pyramid structure has been built in the park’s greenhouse, on which 700 poinsettia plants have been arranged to create the impression of a Christmas tree. Dark curtains have been hung on the ceiling to provide a backdrop, and the scene is illuminated. Each of the four sides of the pyramid base is 3 meters long, and the pyramid itself is 3.5 meters high. The red and green poinsettias are decorated with blue, green, red, and yellow lights. Surrounding the display are what are termed objets representing snowmen, reindeer and other seasonal symbols. Visitors who want a poinsettia of their own to take home can buy them on-site for JPY 1,000 apiece. The exhibit is open from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. right now, and until 8:00 p.m. from 19-25 December. Park officials have also festooned a Japanese cedar outside in the park itself with 25,000 LEDs for illumination to create something a bit more traditional. That tree, which is more than a century old, is the park’s symbol.

Sometimes the Japanese don’t need a tree structure at all—an illustration of a tree will do. That’s the basis of the Christmas lighting display at the Sony Building in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, which also combines the custom of people tossing coins into a fountain to make a wish. The fountain here is called the Ai no Izumi (literally, Spring of Love), and visitors use their legal tender to purchase a special mock coin to cast on the waters. When a sensor inside the fountain detects the special coins, it activates a mechanism that increases the brightness of an LED display on the side of the wall that depicts a Christmas tree. You’ve heard of the more the merrier? This is the more the brighter. The money collected will be given to the Japan Red Cross and other groups for distribution to children’s charities around the world. This is the 42nd year the Sony Building has had a display of this type, and in that time they’ve collected a total of JPY 64 million. The LED tree on the wall will be turned off after the 20th, however.

The Japanese don’t play a lot of Christmas music—and half of what they do play seems to be Happy Christmas by John Lennon and Yoko Ono—but they don’t need a melody or lyrics to instinctively understand how to make spirits bright.

One Response to “Nippon Noel 2009 (1): Just some paper, flowers, and lights”

  1. Fat Tony said

    According to this, Christmas was celebrated in Meiji too. The Asahi was saying it was an “annual [Japanese] event” by 1928:

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