Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Nippon Noel 2012

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Christmas tree at Huis ten Bosch, a theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki, that recreates The Netherlands with full-scale copies of old Dutch buildings.

Christmas in Japan is a festival of light. For even more creative examples, hit the tag at the bottom of the post.

Merry Christmas to Mr. Lawrence, and to you all!

Posted in Holidays, Social trends | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

CHRISTMAS customs in East Asia may lack the self-perpetuating momentum of the holiday in Christian countries in the West with a longer tradition, but the season and its symbols can still generate intense emotion in this part of the world. An example is the the steel towers decorated as Christmas trees that an evangelical group erects every year two miles from the North Korean border on the 100-foot-high Aegibong Hill. They were to have been illuminated on Friday, which would have made them visible to soldiers on the northern side of the border and residents of the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The decorations have caused periodic friction between the two countries — Bah, humbug might well be the North Korean national motto — and so were stopped in 2004. The group resumed the practice in 2010, but this year the Scrooges in Pyeongyang said they’d shoot out the lights and it would be the southerners’ fault if they did. Since no one has any idea of the leadership’s current state of mind up north, or even who constitutes the leadership, the South Koreans decided discretion was the better part of holiday virtue and will refrain from flipping the switch on the towers this week.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more peace on the Japanese part of the earth, and they can and do light all the Christmas trees they want anywhere they feel like it. The Japanese view Christmas as an excellent opportunity to stage a festival of light. Indeed, with all the imagination incorporated into the designs, their variations on the theme of tannenbaum might be considered a minor form of public art. Here are some of the best in 2011.


They’ve been partying since 13 November at the Aqua Christmas 2011 festivities in Odaiba. The sponsors have exhibited a seven-meter-high Marina Fantasy Tree that represents a Christmas tree rising out of the sea, which is a satisfying image for an island country. An added touch is that the colors change in coordination with the music.

They’re just as abstract over at the Shinjuku Southern Terrace shopping facility. Inside the tower are two switches that change the lights from red to green to blue to a Christmasy pink to yellow to rainbow, accompanied by stately bell sounds. They’re calling it the Kizuna Tree, with kizuna being the human ties that bond, and they suggest it’s an excellent way for couples to strengthen their own ties. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year in Japan, and if a young couple were to stop by to strengthen their ties at the Kizuna Tree and wound up buying something before they left, then so much the better.

The cutbacks in power consumption necessitated by the Tohoku disaster forced people to use their imaginations and discover new ways to find the juice for the lights. The most frequently adopted solution is LEDs, but many places also use wind power, and some even went with vegetable oil.

Wind power was the choice to light up a 400-meter stretch of zelkova trees in toney Roppongi Hills. It’s the first time they’ve trimmed the trees for Christmas in this neighborhood, so they decided to get creative with pink and beige lights designed to look like a waterfall. Those lights don’t look pink or beige, and they don’t resemble a waterfall either, but that’s what the copy said.

Awareness of the Tohoku disaster is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that’s why the trees displayed in the central concourse at the JR Ueno Station were decorated with ornaments made in the areas hardest hit in March. They were put together by women in Kuji and Rikuzentakata in Iwate, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi who were suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami. The operation was put together by a group in Saitama called Team Tomodachi to help those in the stricken areas. They asked the women to make the ornaments, which they then sold to remunerate them for their work. The material used was the leftovers from the process for manufacturing organic cotton products.

The trees themselves were put up by Atre Ueno, a local shop, with the help of the Tokyo and Sendai branches of the East Japan Railway Co. and Ueno Station.

Seven women from Ishinomaki came to Ueno in November to hang the ornaments with Atre Ueno employees. One of the women explained that she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it when someone approached her with the idea — she had spent her whole life processing wakame seaweed by hand, and crafts were not her hobby. The longer the group worked together, however, the more fun they had. She said that, on reflection, she lost a lot this year, but also wound up gaining something as well.


A look at some of the posts under the Christmas tag for a peek at Christmases past will show that PET bottles are a favorite choice as a tree material substitute. All the trees along this pedestrian walkway near the municipal offices in Nantan, Kyoto, were made with the preformed polyethylene terephthlate. The members of a local club found about 3,500 empties, which surely left them with sticky fingers. They weren’t too sticky, however, to prevent them from putting together 30 1.8-meter trees of six levels with 30 bottles, and two 2.4-meter trees of eight levels with 500 bottles, and then lining them up along the 200-meter pathway. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself, they’ll be lit until 8:00 p.m. tonight.


An executive committee consisting mostly of JCs got profligate with the LEDs a little further to the north in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and used 200,000 to decorate a 200-meter-long row of zelkova trees at the city’s Tsuba Center square near the train station for the seventh year.

This year, they wanted the display to reflect the wishes for national recovery, so the lights spell out Gambaro Nippon, or Let’s Fight, Japan.

There’s another tree-based illuminated decoration at the Chuo Koen (Central Park) in the city. If you can’t make it there for Christmas, don’t worry — they’ll be up until 9 January, and that makes a few more than the standard 12 days of Christmas.


Santa will visit and a tree will be lit at the Noritake Garden, a ten-year-old park in Nagoya. Mr. Claus will again climb the chimney on the ceramics plant to plant a 12-meter-high tree there. The reduced supply of electricity this year caused by fallout from the Fukushima disaster will be offset by a solar power generator installed at the facility in October, capable of producing an average of 120 kW a day.


Everybody likes Christmas surprises, so the Shinwa Construction Co. in Osaka has had a suprise for a different neighborhood every year for the past eight years. They use the front lot of whatever condominium that they happen to be in the process of building and put up a 12-meter-high Christmas tree with 30,000 LEDs with no warning on 1 December. Naturally, this keeps the Osakans wondering where the tree will turn up every year, and making a special trip to see when they find out. This year the tree was put up in Yodogawa Ward, but this photo shows one from about five years ago.

The company also staged a “Christmas Event” on the 22nd and 23rd with an artificial snow machine and stalls selling such Yuletide delicacies as oden and yakitori roasted o’er an open fire.


Not all that gllitters is an LED. The 10-meter-high tree put up by the Ukai Venetian Glass Museum in Hakone consists of 70,000 pieces of crystal glass, which flash in seven different colors in the sunlight. Though it’s illuminated externally at night, as you can see in the video, the tree itself has no internally lit ornaments. The facility also added 60 candles and 180 lanterns to the park exhibit on 1 December.


The northern island of Hokkaido is cold enough to pass for the North Pole — they start wearing jackets at night at the end of August — so Christmas comes naturally to the natives. The city of Hakodate is also known for the big trees at its Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. It’s so well known, in fact, that the city of Hirosaki in the neighboring prefecture of Aomori put up their own 20-meter tree at the site. Hirosaki Mayor Kasai Noriyuki explained the display was to promote ties between the two cities.

And hey, what’s Christmas without a fireworks display?


The Kagoshimanians also got into the Christmas spirit by making three trees out of PET bottles, which they displayed at a big shopping mall in the center of the city. It’s the third year Yamagata-ya has put up PET bottle trees to enhance awareness of ecological activities and recycling. The main six-meter-high tree used about 2,800 bottles brought by customers and 6,500 LEDs provided by the store, and if you look behind the adult Santa in the photo, you can see one of the three smaller subsidiary trees. They got the store customers to help put them together and hang the decorations, which is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence, though this was more fun and a lot less messy.


A cosmetics manufacturing and sales company way down south in Fukuoka City decided to help make spirits bright up north after a very gloomy year in Fukushima, whose name will now be forever associated with a nuclear disaster. That’s why they put up this big tree next to the JR Fukushima Station in the city. Trimming any tree with more than 40,000 LEDs is bound to brighten the neighborhood and spirits both. Said local resident Matsumoto Ryoko, aged 75:

Just looking at it cheers me up. After this difficult year with the disaster, these are lights of hope.

They’ll be lit in their city until 11:00 p.m. tonight, and hopefully in their hearts for many more nights to come.

The year I came to Japan there was a musical tsunami in the form of Yamashita Tatsuro’s soundtrack to the movie The Big Wave. It hit #2 on the charts, making it one of the most successful soundtrack records in Japan. It was especially popular among people in their 20s and 30s, both because it was so well done, and because Yamashita himself was a favorite among people of that age at the time.

One half of the LP consisted of Yamashita’s tunes, and the other half of Beach Boy remakes that are more listenable than the originals, but then my taste lies in directions other than that of the Wilson brothers. He didn’t need any brothers for the harmonies because he overdubbed all the vocal parts himself.

Yamashita is (or should be) in the top rank of international pop music auteurs. Asked about his musical inspiration, he said he grew up listening to FEN (Far East Network), the radio station for American servicemen in this part of the world, which anyone with a transistor radio in Tokyo can hear. The production values of his music also recall uptown soul music, so if you can imagine a Japanese singer creating original material that mixes Beach Boy and soul music influences, then you’re close to the Yamashita sound.

Even better known than the original Big Wave LP is his Christas song, called Christmas Eve, which was released as a single the year before. It reached only #44 on the 1983 charts (the LP from which it came was #1), but it had miraculous staying power: it’s the only Japanese pop song to reach the Top 100 for 20 straight years. The single eventually sold 1.8 million copies, boosted by its use as the theme song for JR East’s seasonal commercials starting in 1986. The residuals alone must surely mean that all of his Christmases will be bright.

What better cyber-present could there be than an embedded video of the song with scenes from the commercials throughout the years? Here’s hoping that your real presents are as sweet as the girl waiting behind the train station pillar in 1989. メリークリスマス!

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Nippon noel 2010

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 26, 2010

CHRISTIANS ACCOUNT for just one percent of Japan’s population, but no one can spot the potential for a good festival better than the Japanese. That’s why they’ve adopted Christmas, with all its secular symbols, as a winter festival of light–most fitting for the time of the year in the northern hemisphere with the least amount of daylight.

One of the most attractive aspects of the season is the Japanese use of the Christmas tree as an art form. Here are some of this year’s examples.

Local volunteers in Nanyo, Yamagata, began decorating a 25-meter fir tree at a local primary school in 2003, and they’ve continued every year since. They’ve also been adding to the amount of bulbs they use to trim the tree, and this year they hung 20,000 in four colors. This is actually called an “illumination event” because the tree will be lit every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. until mid-January, but that didn’t stop the piano, flute, and violin trio from playing Christmas hymns as well as selections from the classics at the lighting ceremony.

What’s better than having a Christmas tree? Two trees! These two fir trees down south in Yamaguchi City, 26 and 20 meters high respectively, are estimated to be 450 years old. They’re festooned with 35,000 lights hung by 50 volunteers. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see them until 10 January.

This tree in a park in Anan, Tokushima, is only 15 meters high, but it’s decorated with 500,000 light-emitting diodes. A lighted Christmas tree is not just a seasonal decoration here—it’s part of the Anan Luminous Town Project that’s been held two or three times a year since 2003. This December was the 17th time the project was presented. Anan is a luminous town because it’s the headquarters of the Nichia Corp., the nation’s largest LED manufacturer.

The Tokushimanians devised a new way to build their tree this year. Previous trees were raised on site using ropes or a crane, but this year’s model was built with a bamboo frame. Nothing says Christmas in Asia like bamboo. A total of 120 lengths of 4-6 meter-long bamboo were used. They liked the idea so much they also built a 10-meter-high bamboo pyramid and bamboo wreaths.

In addition to being one of the Christmas colors, green is also the color of the ecological movement, and one way the Japanese put the green into Christmas is to make trees out of used PET bottles. Here’s a 7.25-meter PET bottle tree at the L’Espace City shopping complex in To’on, Ehime. How interesting that the “green” tree is blue, but that won’t surprise anyone who understands the language. The tree wasn’t erected solely to raise ecological awareness—it also is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of L’Espace City. That’s why the 16,000 LEDs will be lit from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until end of January. It was assembled by a non-profit and some private companies in the city, which started collecting bottles at schools and shops in the fall. They found more than 10,000 in three months.

This PET bottle eco-tree adorned a Fukui City parking lot. Fukuan adults and kids have been trimming PET bottle trees in public for the past four years, and they used 700 PET bottles and electric lights for this year’s five-meter creation. To add to the holiday atmosphere, two Santa Clauses passed out candy, and they drew a picture of Snow White on the side of an adjacent building. The kids also built a haunted house. Why? Because it’s Christmas!

Fukui City adults and children also worked together to build this cardboard Christmas tree designed to lie on the floor of the gym at the Higashiago Primary School. The Christmas celebration for the grade schoolers included several events, including reading aloud from storybooks and group singing. This tree was created by 150 people working in groups of six or seven. It was 15 meters high and nine meters wide, and decorated with ornaments made from wrapping paper and milk cartons brought from home. They also set up and lit 200 candles in the form of a tree, and then went up to the second floor to enjoy the results of their handiwork from on high.

What else can be used for Christmas tree material besides PET bottles, bamboo, and cardboard? Glass! The employees of Aqua World, the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, created this glass tree from 108 individual pieces with tropical fish inside. They wanted small colorful fish for the decorations, so they chose the betta Siamese fighting fish. That breed is well known for aggressively defending its territory and fighting until the finish. Territorial disputes aren’t really in the spirit of the season, so the feisty fish have been isolated from each other within the tree. A lonely Christmas for them is the best solution for everyone.

Speaking of fish, the Kagoshima City Aquarium had kindergarten students from 42 schools in the city work since early November to create fish ornaments for their Christmas trees. Yes, trees—they had 34 in all spread throughout the facility. Now how’s that for a scheme. They got the kids to do all the work of making Christmas decorations and called it an art project!

The Japanese are known for their appreciation of ephemeral beauty, and here’s an excellent Yuletide example. The ANA Hotel Clement Takamatsu in Takamatsu, Kagawa, arranges the lights in 46 guest rooms on the northeast side of the building on floors 5-19 in the shape of a tree. They ask the guests in the other rooms on that side of the building to shut the curtains, and the result is a tree pattern that is 48 meters high and 43 meters wide.

The hotel does this only on Christmas Eve, and for only one hour, starting from 6:00 p.m. The more you think about it, the more Zen it gets!

Drivers in Mino, Osaka, can’t miss this tree, nor have they for the past 15 years. This creation of the Mino Chamber of Commerce is almost impossible to miss—it’s 50 meters high and towers over the Green Road Tunnel.

Christmas is not always filled with peace and light, as louts are on the prowl every day of the year. To remind everyone of the need to be alert even on 25 December, the police department of Muroran, Hokkaido, made a tree of 30 PET bottles decorated with handmade Christmas cards from each of the separate bureaus. Instead of the generic “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, the cards contained crime-busting messages, such as “Don’t forget to lock the windows and doors when you go out.” Said the Muroran police chief, “A safe and sound yearend is the best Christmas present after all.” The kids might not agree, but their parents probably will.

Incorporating the Christmas theme with all sorts of national symbols is a seasonal tradition everywhere, and Japan is no exception. That might be one of the reasons the Fuji Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi built a 60-meter-high, illuminated steel frame representation of Mt. Fuji in their parking lot for the season. It’s decorated with 100,000 LEDs. The park says that other than free-standing electric towers, it is the highest illuminated object in Japan.

Snow is a key part of Christmas music and imagery, even in places where it doesn’t snow. So in keeping with the seasonal theme, here’s a photo of the first snowfall on Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi in November. Luckily it includes some Christmas reds for contrast. Snow has dusted the summit since 25 September, but this was the first time the whole mountain was covered. It was – 1º on the ground when the picture was taken but -12.1º on top of Old Snowy. Makes me glad to be in Kyushu!

Yes, this Ampontan Christmas card is a day late, but accept it in the spirit of Suzuki Saeko—don’t you wish it could be Christmas every day?

If you’re still in the seasonal mood, click on the Christmas tag for some truly inspired trees from previous posts.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Nippon Noel 2009 (3): Straight from Santa’s arbor

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 26, 2009

IT DOESN’T FEEL like Christmas without the decorations, and Christmas decorations aren’t complete without the most important symbol of the secular festival—trimmed Christmas trees. As a click on the Christmas tag below will reveal, the Japanese apply their prodigious imagination for adding Big Fun to festivals and create unique tannenbaum designs. Here are a few more in this year’s Christmas card of a post.

Saga ceramics

The towns of Arita and Imari in Saga are known throughout the world as production centers for ceramics and porcelain. Close by in the same prefecture is the Hiryu Kiln in Takeo, which has the world’s largest noborigama, or climbing kiln. Those kilns have multiple chambers, making possible the creation of fine porcelain. This year was the second year the kiln produced ceramic Christmas trees, both for exhibit and sale. The photo shows a few of the 100 from this year’s batch. The base of the trees is 15 centimeters in diameter, and they are 20 centimeters tall. Light-emitting diodes in three colors provide the illumination. If you’re interested in placing one on your end table or mantel as a seasonal adornment, prices start at JPY 3,500 (about $US 38.26).

Tokushima bread

It’s a simple matter for ceramists to apply their skills to Christmas decorations, but that’s a bit more difficult for bakers to do. The bread chefs at the Tokushima Grand Vrio Hotel in Tokushima City were not to be deterred, however, and they came up with the idea of making the hotel’s first floor Christmas tree out of French bread. This year’s version was the fourth for the hotel’s doughboys. The 2.5-meter-high tree, which looks a bit like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, was built with 132 loaves of bread in six tiers. The long tubular shape of most bread doesn’t lend itself to seasonal decorations, so the chefs created their own Christmas bread art by making edible ornaments in the shape of stars, wreaths, airplanes, and tigers—2010 being the year of the tiger in the Oriental zodiac.

Making a good design better

The train station in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, is the only one in Japan to have received a Good Design award from the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Association. Buildings recognized for their good design deserve a Christmas display worthy of the honor, so the Iwamizawans decorated the 25-meter-high dawn redwood, or metasequoia, in front of the station with 30,000 blue, red, and green LEDs for Project Xmas 2009. The station building received the award this year, so those 30,000 lights are 20% more than are hung in a normal year. A crowd of about 300 people showed up to watch the lighting ceremony, in which a group of parents and their children dressed up as Santas to hold a countdown. The lights go on from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Obama’s PET bottles

Who else but the Japanese would find a way to turn garbage into seasonal beauty and develop the citizens’ eco-consciousness at the same time? As this post from 2007 shows, making Christmas trees from discarded PET bottles has become something of a national pastime, and the folks in Obama, Fukui, got into the act for the first time this year. About 150 of the Obamanians teamed up to build a six-meter-high tree with 4,286 PET bottles in front of a culinary school. This was no casual activity—it took three months to assemble the PET tree using 500-milliliter and two-liter bottles. The base of the tree is 3.5 meters in diameter, and steel was used to make both the trunk and the base. The base was secured to the treetop with 16 wires. The bottles were hung by the cooking school with care by passing other wires through each one from a hole in bottom to the mouth. To create the effect of interior illumination, lights were attached to the steel frame. Who would have thought that sticky plastic gunk could be made to create something so attractive? The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. until January.

Trees on a Tokyo beach

Having spent my high school years in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I can vouch for the fact that it does snow on the beach. It’s incongruous to see snow drifts on sand that was the scene of summertime fun just a few months before, but it does happen. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to brighten up the beach with decorations on a seasonal theme, even in Tokyo. That’s the objective behind Candle Night in Odaiba 2009, in which the beach is lit up by 3,000 candles covered with paper lamps. The candles are arranged to look like Christmas trees, shooting stars, and snow crystals. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see the combination of several traditions with some local innovations, the candles are lit from sundown to 9:00 p.m., as long as the surf’s not up.

Bottoms up

What’s a hotel to do during Christmas if it wants to attract casual visitors but doesn’t have a boulangerie on the premises? The proprietors of the Grand Park Otaru in Otaru, Hokkaido, must have stood on their heads to come up with an answer, but they found one that works. They decorated their first floor lobby with an upside-down Yuletide tree. The tree—or should it be cone?—is three meters tall from the base down to the top. It is festooned with the usual decorations, including balls, lights, and boxes crafted to look like presents. Speaking of what things looks like, the people who stopped by to see for themselves thought the tree looked like a bouquet.

Christmas Day-o

Bananas wouldn’t seem to fit with the wintertime images that have become associated with the holiday festivities, but that didn’t stop a public-private sector partnership for municipal development in Iga, Mie, to trim a tree in a local shopping arcade with bananas. The three-meter-high tree was made with materials that would ordinarily have been discarded as unusable by local businesspeople and merchants. Seven bamboo poles were used for support, and that’s another material which seldom comes to mind as a Christmas decoration. The primary ornaments were 400 bananas that couldn’t be sold for consumption because of size standards, and would have otherwise been thrown away. In addition to the bananas, other decorations included cotton—to represent all the snow in banana-growing countries, of course—and two Santa dolls climbing up the side. Ten people put it together earlier this month, and if they wanted a snack while they were working, they probably didn’t send out for pizza. This tree is illuminated from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., though the reports didn’t say how they managed to get the LEDs inside the fruit without peeling them first.

In most Western countries, 25 December has traditionally been the start of Christmas celebrations, so people leave the trimmings and decorations up until at least the first week of the new year. But in Japan, the big yearend holiday is still a week away, and that means most of these trees, lights, bread, bananas, and PET bottles will disappear for another year starting from the 26th.

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nippon Noel 2009 (2): Instead of street corner Santas…

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 18, 2009

IF CHRISTMAS IS FOR KIDS, how do children get in the holiday spirit in Japan, which doesn’t have traditions of dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh, good King Wenceslaus surveying the winter landscape on the Feast of Stephen, or, for bigger kids, having a close encounter under the mistletoe after a couple of cups of eggnog as a prelude to Santa sliding down the chimney? Here are three examples.

The first is a special class for children and their parents in Christmas ikebana, or flower arranging, in Tokushima City. Held in a local community center, it was part of a program sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. The class attracted 20 primary school students and their parents.

Providing the instruction was a director of a national ikebana association and officers of the local branch association of one of the flower arranging schools. The children used holly, lilies, azalea branches dyed red, and carnations to create flower arrangements with a Christmas theme. Said 11-year-old Hayakawa Yuri: “I was able to do it better than I thought I would. I want to see how it looks in my room.”

Meanwhile, the Susami Aquarium in Susami-cho, Wakayama, which features exhibits of local shrimp and crabs, decided to decorate their main attractions to offer a festive accent to the season. They dressed up two types of crabs as reindeer with Santa, or, to ensure a white Christmas, covered in snow.

One of the varieties given a seasonal makeover was the sponge crab dromidiopsis dormia, which has 15-centimeter-wide shells as an adult. Sea sponges naturally attach themselves to the shell, so the museum employed this trait to stick on sponges reworked to look like Santa dolls. The other was a local variety of spider crab with two-centimeter shells that sometimes disguise themselves with floating debris. The museum has loaded 20 with white thread to represent snow in an exhibit that lasts until the 25th.

Finally, in Rumoi, Hokkaido, municipal workers came up with a clever idea that uses the Chii-chan character. Chii-chan was an idea conceived by city employees to promote local scallop production throughout Hokkaido. Employees drafted 200 of the young scallop shells into holiday service, drew faces on them, and dressed them in red to resemble Santa Claus. The photo here shows them being displayed in a city building.

The Chii-chan/Santa figures are being given as presents to those who contribute to a campaign conducted by the Marine Rescue Japan organization. Some children, anxious for a Santa of their own, have even donated to the campaign.

So who needs visions of sugarplums dancing in your head when you can groove on Yuletide fantasias featuring original ikebana, sponge crabs, and scallop shells instead?

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Nippon Noel 2008!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 26, 2008

JAPAN MAY NOT BE a Christian country, but that doesn’t stop folks from getting festive during Christmas. On the contrary, no one understands festivals better than the Japanese, and they’ve turned their Christmas season into a winter festival of light. They’ve also added some unique touches of their own to the global celebration.

Winter Vista Illumination

Winter Vista Illumination

There is no example more apt than that of the Winter Vista Illumination held at this time every year at the Showa Kinen Park in Tokyo. The entree is several decorative lighting displays throughout the park grounds based on the theme of outer space, including those representing constellations and the Milky Way galaxy.

The park’s symbol is a large fountain, shown in the photo, and this is linked by watercourse to four other fountains. Not only are the fountains illuminated, but the watercourses themselves are festooned with lights. The gingko trees lining the waterways are also hung with lights to create a tunnel effect.

But a Christmas lighting display requires a touch of Christmas, does it not? The park provides considerably more than a touch with a 4.5-meter-high Christmas tree made from 6,545 champagne glasses layered more than 30 rows high, and two nearby 2.8-meter trees created with a combined 6,600 champagne glasses.

And of course it can’t be a Winter Vista Illumination unless the trees are lighted, so all three of the Christmas trees are presented in bright colors. But since the light and glass would be a bit static on their own, and they’ve already got that flowing water and those spraying fountains on the premises to begin with, and those champagne glasses are just begging to be filled with bubbly, they came up with a more dynamic display by assembling the illuminated champagne glass trees so as to have water directed to the top. There it spills over to fill the initial level of glasses, which overflow, sending the water cascading down to the next row, and the next, until it reaches the bottom.

For those who find this a bit overwhelming, there is a smaller, three-level mini-tree made with about 100 champagne glasses nestled among the gingko trees. It sounds positively relaxing in comparison.

For those who find this to be insufficient and prefer a more explosive Noel, there was a Christmas-themed fireworks display with 500 fireworks every night from the 20th to the 24th. The outer space lighting and champagne glass Christmas trees were displayed through Christmas night.

Who wouldn’t love to see in greater detail what those illuminated Christmas trees made of champagne glasses and overflowing water looked like? While there are several videos of this attraction on the web, I thought most were either poorly done or were technically recalcitrant. Here’s the one I consider the best. You have to scroll down the page a bit. The notation says it lasts two minutes, but it ends after about one minute every time I play it.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget:

The Ghost of Christmas Past!

Last year I offered several posts featuring some extremely imaginative and attractive public Christmas trees in Japan. The posts are still around, and the photographs look even better with the improved WordPress software. So let’s break open the Christmas photo album!

Here you can see an attractive department store tree, a tree trimmed with people instead of ornaments, and an abstract art tree.

Here is a Christmas tree lit by an electric eel.

This post uses polls and surveys to explain how the Japanese view Christmas and how they prefer to enjoy the season. It is adorned with photos of a tree made of fishing boat flags and an abstract tree that is both bold and elegant.

How about a tree trimmed with live chrysalises, or another one with seashells? Try here.

This story about two kinds of Christmas cakes—only one edible—also has a photo of a Christmas tree decorated with uchiwa, or hand fans.

Don’t pass up this post showing how the Japanese turn old PET bottles into Christmas trees. They all look great, including the huge one outside of a Fukuoka City department store.

Here’s a poinsettia tree accompanying a story about a Christmas tree for a Japanese family living in Seoul, showing that the Christmas spirit is present in Northeast Asia.

And you won’t want to miss this post with a stunning Christmas objet, a tree of pearls, Christmas roots, and the Christmas decorations on a bridge built in 1839.

What are you waiting for? Get down and get clicky!

Here’s hoping that Santa sent down your chimney just what you asked for, whether you sat on his knee or not! Merry Christmas!

Posted in Holidays | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Nippon Noel: Japanese Christmas tree finale!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2007

MOST OF THE JAPANESE CHRISTMAS TREE designs we’ve seen over the past few days have been recognizabe as Christmas trees, albeit from a unique perspective. This Christmas night post, however, features three trees that really stretch the envelope for Yuletide design.

The arrangement of lights shown in the first photo isn’t even called a tree, though it is conical in shape and definitely suggests a Christmas tree. The creators refer to it as an objet, however, and it has been on display in a park in Sumoto, Hyogo Prefecture all month.


As with two of the PET bottle trees shown in the previous post, this is also a project of the local JCs. The group has been involved with public lighting displays in the city during the Christmas and New Year’s season since 1999, but they substantially changed the exhibit’s design this year.

The tree–sorry, objet—is 15 meters high and five meters in diameter. An estimated 10,000 red, orange, and yellow LEDs were used in its creation. There is also a tunnel created by lights nearby, and both are surrounded by a 1.5-meter wide path, along which are hung 6,500 PET bottle lamps carved by local kindergarten students.

The object at the top of the objet is what appears to be an upside-down human figure, but none of the reports I saw included an explanation of what it was supposed to be doing. If we let our imaginations roam freely and look at the exhibit upside down, we could say it resembles the Spirit of Christmas from Outer Space beaming his Noel Ray down on the people of Sumoto.

Whatever it is, it will be lit every night from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. until 6 January.

The next tree doesn’t need electricity to create a glow—a subtle illumination emanates from it naturally. That’s because it’s made out of an estimated 10,000 cultured pearls.

On display at the Japan Pearl Center in Kobe, the two-meter long tree is worth about 30 million yen (about US$ 263,000).


Assembly of the tree required about three months. The pearls, which range from eight millimeters to one centimeter in diameter, are hung like chandeliers on 400 threads from the ceiling and illuminated vertically. The creation–pearl objet?–is said to shine with a mysterious milky white color when viewed in a dimly lit room.

The pearl tree (on which no partridge could roost) was made by the Pearl City Kobe Association, a group that consists of 70 companies in the industry. Their objective was not only to celebrate Christmas, but also to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the development of the Akoya Cultured Pearl technique, which was the key to making pearls more inexpensive and therefore accessible to the public at large.

The Akoya Cultured Pearl technique for coaxing oysters to create pearls on demand was invented by two Japanese, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise, and successfully commercialized by Kokichi Mikimoto. The story is fascinating, and you can read more about it at the bottom of this page. Mikimoto had a long history of creating elaborate structures with pearls, so it is likely the association did not come up with the idea of making a large pearl Christmas tree on the spur of the moment.


The next tree is my personal favorite for the sheer brilliance of the idea alone. This Christmas tree is located in the Omotesando Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo. In Japanese, a subway is literally an underground railroad (chikatetsu[do]). Since the station is underground, it only makes sense that the portion of the tree visible there would be the roots. Therefore, this decorated Christmas tree is not the part above the ground, but the part below the ground—the Christmas roots.

The tree—sorry, roots–are in the Echika Omotesando section of the station, which is a commercial area with restaurants and shops. Instead of giving the tree’s height, the reports say it is “two meters deep”.

The pink ornaments hanging from the tree are actually Christmas cards on which messages can be written. Every Friday for the past month, the nearby shops have distributed the cards to customers, who jotted down their Christmas wishes. The cards are then placed on the tree.
Japanese readers and those familiar with Japan will recognize this as a custom borrowed from Tanabata on 7 July, during which people write their wishes on colored pieces of paper and hang them from a bamboo tree. For as often as it is claimed that the Japanese are an insular people with a tendency toward xenophobia, there are in fact more spontaneous expressions of multiculturalism here than people think–and this represents another one.

Finally, lest you think the country has floated over the edge into the Christmas twilight zone, here’s a more conventional decoration on a more conventional Japanese piece of architecture.


That’s the Megane Bridge in the Isahaya Park in Isahaya, just outside of Nagasaki City, shown in the fourth photo. The word megane in Japanese means eyeglasses, and the reason the bridge was given that name is obvious once you look at the photograph. Built in 1839 in imitation of the older and smaller Megane Bridge in Nagasaki City, which is reportedly the oldest stone arch bridge in the country, it has been designated an important cultural treasure by the national government.

This year the city decided to festoon the bridge with lights, and they used an estimated 5,000 of them for the project. They’ve been on from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every night since the 15th. The bridge has been decorated in conjunction with a larger event that also involves a 10-meter-high light tower and roadside bushes and trees hung with another 25,000 lights. (This is what the bridge looks like when it’s not decorated for Christmas.)

The show will last until 14 January, after which the lights will be removed, the objets will be dismantled, the PET bottles recycled, the roots restored to the dirt, and the country again returns to normal!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nippon Noel: PET bottle Christmas trees!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2007

POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE—or PET for short—is a type of polyester used to make fibers, bottles and jars, and injection molding parts. Synthetic fibers account for more than 60% of the world’s PET production, and in that application the material is called polyester.

Because it is clear, safe, light, and recyclable, as well as excellent for maintaining product integrity and creating containers of various designs, 30% of the PET produced worldwide is used for bottles or other containers.

And the Japanese have employed their ever-fertile imaginations to find a new application for used PET bottles: Decorations for Christmas trees and the Christmas trees themselves, particularly for public display. The results, as you are about to see, can be visually stunning.

The first place we’ll visit is the last place you’d expect to see a tree made of recycled trash—Fukuoka City’s Tenjin district, Kyushu’s largest shopping and commercial area. Every year, the Daimaru department store erects a large Christmas tree for exterior display, and last year they came up with the idea of using PET bottles to make the tree. They did it again this year, too, incorporating 6,000 bottles in the 14-meter high tree shown in the first photo.

Store workers cut open the bottles to create an estimated 1,000 flower ornaments in 290 different designs. To make the tree more attractive at night, they also trimmed the tree with 30,000 LEDs in three different colors. The tree will be up through Christmas day.

The Tenjin tree is a part of a commercial enterprise, but just as often, the creation of PET bottle trees is the work of a civic group. One example is the trees shown in the second photo, which were put together by the Hamasaka JCs of Shin’onsen-cho, Hyogo Prefecture, and placed in front of the JR Hamasaka Station. The trees are illuminated from the interior, which creates a floating effect that viewers are said to find attractive.
The JCs hoped their project would attract people to the shopping district near the station and raise local awareness of recycling. They put together a total of 14 trees ranging in height from one to three meters by using 340 two-liter bottles and 830 500-milliliter bottles

Not content to do things by halves, the JCs also held a lighting ceremony to present their handiwork. During the ceremony, parents of students attending the Hamasaka Kindergarten sang Christmas songs and performed music with hand bells. The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day until the 26th.

The creation of five-meter PET bottle trees made with 600 bottles each in Toyosato-cho, Shiga Prefecture, is another JC effort. They were erected in the parking lot front of the town’s municipal offices and are lit every evening at 5:00 p.m.

For the past four years, the JCs have been holding classes for kids to provide instruction in building PET bottle rockets. (I’d like to take that class myself!) This year, however, they decided to do something different and created the trees instead. Each of the trees has conical bases and eight large light bulbs inside.

The groups started collecting used bottles during summer vacation, and the whole project took about six months to finish. The trees will be lit until 11:00 p.m. on the 25th.

The last PET bottle tree is the result of a much larger project in which the whole town participated. The bottles were collected in special boxes placed in front of the local primary school, post offices, and other locations throughout Geino-cho, Tsu, Mie Prefecture.

The tree is 25 meters high and required an estimated 10,000 PET bottles to make. It too was first presented with a lighting ceremony, dubbed Geino Christmas 2007. Performing Christmas songs during the ceremony was Geino Brass, the brass band from the local junior high school. The event also featured a parade with seven cars, which carried smaller trees, reindeer and a sleigh, and model houses with chimneys.

The tree will be lit every day from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until the 25th.

Lest anyone misunderstand the intent of this post, be assured that every aspect of this activity has my admiration. Though a mere handful of Japanese are Christians, their own traditions have given them a complete understanding of and appreciation for festivals derived from religious ceremonies, not to mention how to conduct those festivals to promote public enjoyment and civic unity. A quick scroll through the Festivals category on the left sidebar will attest to that.

The Japanese have taken the Christmas tree, one of the symbols of what is now a secular global winter festival, and turned it into a public art form. The examples described in this post are made from a recyclable industrial product that has been disposed of after its initial use. It has been employed as the art material to create objects of beauty in public places.

All but one of these exhibitions were created by volunteers with the intention of adding brightness and cheer to their communities during the dark winter months, and they were presented in those communities during ceremonies that offered volunteer entertainment provided by the members of those same communities.

You can call it what you like, but I call that the Christmas spirit!

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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!

Posted in Food, Holidays, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Nippon Noel: Eco-candles, chrysalises, and seashells!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 23, 2007

IT’S FASCINATING TO SEE the many ways that Japanese have taken the foreign concept of Christmas and made it their own. Here are three more examples.


The Yubara hot springs district in Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture, has been presenting the Candle Fantasy in Yubara since the 20th. The organizers display what they call eco-candles: they were made with used cooking oil received from local ryokan (Japanese inns) and restaurants.

They were even clever enough to get other people to do the work for them. The 6,000 candles were made by an estimated 300 people, primarily area children and tourists staying at local lodgings, since last October. They will be lit from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until the night of the 25th.
The first photo shows a scene from the Candle Fantasy. It’s unlike any of the images that I associate with Christmas from my childhood, but the combination of hot steam, candlelight, and Japanese design in a spa resort on a cold winter night does create a memorable sight.


How would you like to see a Christmas tree in which the decorations are suddenly transformed and fly away? That’s not a Science Fiction Fantasy—that’s the reality of the Christmas tree displayed in the Itami City Museum of Insects in Hyogo Prefecture. As you can see from the second photo, the 1.5 meter-high Christmas tree is decorated with chrysalises of the tree nymph butterfly, which are naturally gold. The tree has been set up in the museum greenhouse, where an estimated 1,000 live butterflies dwell. It will be on display until 24 December.

The tree nymph butterflies, one of the largest butterflies in Japan, inhabit the southwestern islands below Kyushu. The butterfly itself is known for its black and white speckled wings as well as its gold chrysalises, which are four to five centimeters in length. The butterflies hang them upside down from tree branches, and the museum has utilized this to decorate their Christmas tree for several years.
They’ve also placed green and pink chrysalises from other butterfly varieties on the tree. It takes about two weeks for the butterflies to emerge, and the museum encourages people to visit by reminding them they might get to see it happen if they’re lucky.


And it’s no surprise that an island country would find a way to celebrate Christmas with a maritime theme. The Sea and Shell Museum of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, is holding its special Shellfish Christmas 2007 exhibit until the 24th. One of the features of the exhibit is a Christmas tree trimmed with seashells, as you can see from the third photo.

The tree is 3.5 meters high and is decorated with 150 shells of 55 varieties from around the world, in addition to the usual lights.

The museum has a collection of 110,000 shells, and it is also exhibiting another 150 shells of 28 varieties whose names are derived from the word snow. The curator said there were a surprising number of shellfish from the South Seas whose names are derived from the word snow, despite the fact they don’t have any there.

Well, there are very few Christians in Japan, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese from having fun at Christmastime!

Note: I’ve added the link for the website of the Itami City Museum of Insects to the right sidebar.

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Spirit of the Season in Seoul

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2007

THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT LIVES in Northeast Asia too, as this brief article from the Chunichi Shimbun reveals.

It was written by the newspaper’s Seoul correspondent, is in Japanese, and will not stay online for long, so here’s a quick translation:

I went to buy a Christmas tree with the family. We were looking for a large one about 180 centimeters high. We were told they would be cheaper than trees in Japan.

The store had several different types on display, with different heights and branch arrangements. We found a tree that we liked, and with the lights and silver-colored decorations, the bill came to 87,000 won. (About $US 92.60)

The clerk explained that the tree would be delivered to our home in the next two days, but it didn’t come. What did come was a call from the shop on the evening of the second day. “We’re all sold out of the tree you ordered. Would you like to have a different tree that costs 15,000 won more? We’ll cover the difference in price ourselves.”

I wondered how it would be different from the tree we ordered. The clerk explained the differences in the shape of the branches and the color, but I only vaguely understood what he said because he used a lot of vocabulary that I wasn’t familiar with. I asked them to deliver the tree on the condition that we could return it if we didn’t like it.

Happily, my family liked the tree, so I was relieved. I can understand the Korean that I use in my work because I’m accustomed to hearing it, but shopping still gives me a lot of trouble.

You might keep that story in mind the next time you read an article that would have you believe the Japanese and Koreans get along poorly with each other.

Note on the Tree

Sorry, that’ s not Seoul, but a Christmas tree story needs a Christmas tree photo, and I liked this one.

The tree is actually made of poinsettias and is on display at the Hiroshima Botanical Garden in Hiroshima City. About 130 plants were used to create the 2.5-meter high tree.

It is part of a larger seasonal exhibit in one of their greenhouses, which also includes the Manettia luteorubra, whose flowers are said to resemble candles, and cat thyme, which is a potent form of catnip and has silvery leaves.

Posted in Holidays, Language, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nippon Noel: How the Japanese spend Christmas

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2007

HOW DO THE JAPANESE SPEND CHRISTMAS? The best way to answer that is to let the Japanese answer themselves, and the good news is they already have—through surveys.

A group called Work-Life conducted one such survey from 19-22 November. The survey subjects were 891 men and women from the ages of 20-59. Here are the questions and their answers.

Q: Do you feel Christmas is a special day?
The group with the highest percentage of affirmative answers were those in their twenties at 66.5%. Interest in the holiday declined with age, and fell to 36% for people in their 50s.


Q: How do you plan to spend the day?
The highest response was to relax at home, given by 56.8% of the respondents. This was followed by people who planned to have a party at home (22.8%), and people who planned to go out for dinner (18.4%)

Q: For those who plan to relax at home and those who plan to have a party at home, what sort of meals will you eat?
The people who said they expected to have pre-prepared meals, either partially or entirely, accounted for nearly 70% of the responses, showing that home meal replacements will be an important part of Christmas dinner for many. (Finding out things like this is why they conduct the surveys in the first place.)

Broken down by age group, 80% of people in their 20s say they will use home meal replacements. The incidence of this answer trends downward as the respondent’s age increases. Conversely, the older people get, the more likely they are to make their own dinner at home.

Q: For those who plan to have home replacement dinners or to buy pre-prepared ingredients, how much do you plan to spend? (Don’t include Christmas cake and drinks.)
A total of 75.4% of the respondents said less than 5,000 yen. (Roughly US$44.00)

Q: How does this compare to last year’s expenditures?
74.6% replied there would be no change. Fewer than 10% of the people in their 40s or 50s said they would spend more or slightly more, but slightly fewer than 30% of those in their 20s and 30s planned to spend more. Thus, younger people plan on having a more elaborate Christmas celebration.

Q: For those going out to dinner, what type of establishment will you visit?
68.9% said a restaurant, followed by 15.9% who answered an izakaya (a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place).

Q: How much will you spend at these establishments?
Only 5% of the respondents said more than 30,000 yen (US$265.00), and 65.9% said less than 10,000 yen ($88.00). The survey group concluded that people aren’t splurging as they did during the bubble economy days, despite Japan’s brightening economic picture.

All About Presents

What would Christmas be without presents? A survey conducted by Japan.Internet.Com and goo research uncovered some information on Japanese attitudes towards Christmas gifts.

Those surveyed were 1,089 Internet users from their teens to 60 and older. 53.35% were men and 46.65% were women.

Q: Do you plan to give a Christmas present?
44.9% of the respondents said yes and 20.11% said they were thinking about it. 34.99% said no.


Q: To whom will you give a present?
75.05% answered a family member, and 23.11% said a lover. 16.36% of those participating said a friend or acquaintance. Meanwhile, 4.29% said themselves (Multiple answers were possible.)

Q: Where will you buy the presents?
82.41% said brick-and-mortar stores, and 28.83% said an Internet shop. Those are interesting results for an Internet survey.
Just 7.36% said they would give something homemade, and 2.86% said they would give something they already had on hand.

Q: How much money will you spend?
38.24% said between 1,000 (US$8.83) and 5,000 yen, and 31.90% said from 5,000 to 10,000 yen.

Q: What will you buy as presents?
The reply from 30.47% was clothing, 17.38% said confections, 17.18% said game software, and 15.75% said jewelry. In fifth place was “others”, with 14.72%. When those giving “others” as an answer were asked to specify what they would buy, most said toys.

Q: What would you like to receive as a present?
14.97% hoped for jewelry, while 13.59% wanted clothing, and 11.75% said gift certificates.

Yet another survey found that about 90% of all children would receive Christmas presents. (That corresponds with the answers I got in an informal discussion of this question with the students of two college classes I taught in the spring.

Finally, for the sake of comparison, let’s look at some answers from an Internet survey last January conducted by My Voice Communications. They had 10,000 respondents.

45% said they bought Christmas cakes
40% bought presents.
29% had some kind of Christmas decorations in their homes
25.8% said they had a party at home.
More than 20% prepared Christmas dinner at home.
26% said they did nothing special.

The Trees

We’ve seen before that the Japanese have an imaginative approach toward Christmas trees. Here’s a word about the two trees in the photos accompanying this post. The first one is probably unlike any in a Western country. Located in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, it is made of 30 tairyobata, or banners hung by fishing boats to signal a large catch of fish.

A crew of 15 hung a fishing net arranged to look like a tree on the side of a wall 17 meters high on a square near the harbor and decorated it with lights. They also stretched rope down from the roof and attached the banners so that they hung in a triangular tree shape.

The tree, which was first erected last year, will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until the 31st.

The second tree is on a traffic circle in front of the Entetsu Railroad’s Hamakita Station in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. It will be lit every day from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. until 15 January.

The tree has roughly 9,000 LEDs that are used for illumination. There are also lights resembling snow crystals and stars decorating a nearby mural, as well as 40 other illuminated trees in the area.

Posted in Food, Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Nippon Noel: Eelectricity!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 13, 2007

NOW HERE’S AN EXAMPLE of thinking outside the envelope. The Aquatotto fresh water aquarium in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, has set up a Christmas tree in their first floor lobby with lights powered by the discharge of an electric eel. The tree will be up until Christmas day.


Electric eels—which are more closely related to catfish than eels–discharge electricity when locating their prey or defending themselves. The specimen in the aquarium generates the juice when it’s been fed. The keepers have placed electrodes in the tank that detect and amplify the electricity to light up the two-meter-high tree.

The lights on that tree burn more brightly than one might suspect. The fish can grow from one to 2.5 meters long and weigh up to 20 kilograms. They also can generate up to 500 volts and 1 ampere of current (500 watts), and can be dangerous for adult humans.

Leave it to the Japanese to think of a way to use fish to make spirits bright during the holiday season!

Posted in Holidays, I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Nippon noel: Christmas trees in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE START OF CHRISTMAS SEASON means that children everywhere begin dreaming about the present they will receive under the small artificial tree on the 25th and the treat of Christmas cake that awaits them. Young singles look forward with excited anticipation to (or obsess about their prospects for) the traditional heavy date with their significant other on Eve.

Meanwhile, adults get in the spirit by making the rounds of the “forget-the-year” parties held throughout the month. Others with a more sober disposition, particularly women and the elderly, enthusiastically support the combined amateur/professional productions of Beethoven’s Ninth throughout the country with their attendance or active participation.

And everyone looks forward to a finger-lickin’ good fried chicken dinner with their friends or family.


Yes, that’s what Christmas means in Japan. Not everyone stuffs themselves with turkey, hangs stockings by the chimney, or sings about Mommy kissing Santa Claus.

After all, they’ll be eating rice porridge and dried fruit soup in Finland, cabbage, sausage, and brown peas in Latvia, dried salted codfish in Portugal, and fried carp, potato salad, and fish soup in the Czech Republic.

Hungarian children will receive presents in shoes they’ve placed outside the door or window. In some places the Baby Jesus brings the presents, while in Russia the goodies are delivered by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who employs his granddaughter the Snow Maiden as his helper rather than elves and reindeer. Mexican children have to wait until 6 January for their presents, while those in Russia hold out until the 7th. And in Australia and Brazil people are more likely to go to the beach than go dashing through the woods in a one-horse open sleigh.

Some might wonder why Japan, with a Christian population estimated at 1%, would celebrate Christmas. The answer is that the Japanese love a festival better than anyone, and more than a millennium of experience with secular celebrations based on religious ceremonies gives them a head start.

Let’s be honest—while there are many Christians who focus on the religious aspects of the holiday, millions of people throughout the world celebrate the day and the season as a grand Winter Festival. What could be more natural than for the Japanese to do the same?

Christmas Trees in Japan

The most visible aspect of Christmas in Japan is the public display of Christmas trees. In addition to knowing all about festivals, the Japanese are past masters at borrowing elements from another culture and adding some flair of their own to create something distinctive. The design of public Christmas trees is just another example.

Most of these trees, of course, are erected at department stores, shopping malls, or in commercial districts. One of the first to go up was the Fantasy Tree, shown in the first photo, which was lighted for display on the 23rd at Tokyo’s Yurakucho Seibu Department Store.

Seven meters tall, the Fantasy Tree has 8,000 blue bulbs and is trimmed with a motif of white angel wings. It will be lighted every night through Christmas night.

Visitors who came to see the lighting ceremony were treated to a live concert with several performers, including Korean singer Len (Lee Gi-chan), who performed duets with the Japanese singer Lio from their recent CD LxL.

It might be ungenerous to suggest that blue is an unsuitable color for the season, by the way. In the American city where I grew up, one family in an upscale mid-town residential district on a busy road decorated their house and the hedge surrounding their large yard entirely in blue bulbs. Everyone loved it, and folks still recall it fondly three decades later.


Representing a more religious approach to the holidays is the tree unveiled on the night of the 24th at the Megumi Chalet Karuizawa , a Christian conference center in Karuizawa-cho, Nagano Prefecture. This is also a seven-meter high tree, but it’s trimmed with human beings instead of electric lights. About 80 members of the local Ueda Church clad in red robes arranged themselves in the wooden structure to represent Christmas decorations. They sang Kiyoshi Kono Yoru (Silent Night), Morobito Kozori (Joy to the World), and five other hymns. (Second photo)

The wooden tree—well, that’s what they call it–has seven platforms ringed by green walls decorated with lights. Since this is a Christian facility, the tree is topped with a cross. The human tree was just part of the Christmas decorations and lighting that were unveiled on the same night, which was a chilly 1.1 C—perfect Christmas weather for northern Europeans and North Americans.

The decorations will stay up until the 25th of December, with performances every weekend until then.

The facility says it’s the first outdoor installation of its kind in Japan, but the idea originated in the United States. In fact, they paid two million yen (about US$ 18,500) to have the tree platform shipped from the United States.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to get the Americans to send a diagram and hire local carpenters to build one themselves? Ah, but in the spirit of the season let’s let that slide? Besides, it’s their money!

For a more artistic expression in holiday trees, the Verde Mall shopping district at the JR Kakogawa Station in Kakokawa, Hyogo Prefecture, held a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on the 22nd to present the Kakogawa River Fantasy, which includes not only an illuminated tree but an entire illuminated shopping district. A crowd of about 1,000 turned out on the first night to see the display, which uses 45,000 light bulbs, 5,000 more than last year. (Third photo)


Yes, there was music underneath the tree in Kakogawa, too, as six groups selected through a preliminary competition performed songs with a winter, rather than a Christmas, theme. The popular female duo Kiroro appeared and sang Fuyu no Uta (Winter Song) among other numbers.

The lights will be lit every night from 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. until January 14. That’s even later than Russian Christmas!

Some people in this country—the usual suspects—find Christmas in Japan incongruous. But why should anyone begrudge the Japanese a good time, especially at this time of year, or snicker behind their backs because of the local Christmas customs? There’s a word for folks like that.


Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »