Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan seems to be mostly about light displays and shopping.

The department stores were packed with people during the last few days before Christmas, and on Christmas Eve people were lined up to buy baked chicken and Christmas cake. On our street, there was an inflated Santa that rose out of a chimney and then sank back down, over and over. Christmas music was everywhere.
The Japanese tradition is to celebrate Christmas Eve by eating chicken and Christmas cake. In addition, many Japanese couples go to a fancy hotel for the night. But Christmas morning everyone gets up and goes to work just like any other day. The Christmas decorations and music are all gone, replaced by New Year’s decorations and music.
Christmas Day was strange for me. I spent the day at the local ward office and at the immigration office, completing paperwork for a work visa, since I have just accepted a job in Japan. I was so busy during the day that I barely realized it was Christmas, but during the evening I realized that Christmas actually is a pretty important holiday for me, and it feels pretty strange to be in a culture where it isn’t really celebrated.

Itsumi and I had our own celebration just before Christmas. We took a trip to Yudanaka, where Japan’s famous snow monkeys live. The snow monkeys are Japanese macaques, and they live farther north than other monkeys in the world. The particular macaques that we visited love to soak in the natural hot springs near Yudanaka, where they are photographed by tourist paparazzi. We particularly liked the babies, and also one very old macaque who looked barely alive, but who seemed to enjoy the healthful aspects of the spa.

After hiking up the mountain to see the snow monkeys, we checked into our ryokan, or traditional Japanese lodging. Itsumi had made a reservation, getting a great deal through an internet sale site. When we arrived, the hotel clerk told us that she was so sorry that there had been a plumbing problem and our room wasn’t available. Instead, they would move us into another section of the hotel. This other section turned out to be a very expensive, beautiful and traditional section, and we had an entire suite to ourselves but still for the low price!

The rooms all had beautiful tatami mat floors and sliding wooden and paper doors. Because all of the doors slid, we could change the shape of the rooms by adjusting them. The rooms were traditionally furnished with low tables, and we had a beautiful view of the mountains. Because this was a traditional ryokan, there were no beds, but there was a closet full of futon mattresses and blankets.
Traditionally, Japanese use a bottom sheet but no top sheet. Instead, the blanket is encased in sheet material which can be removed and washed.
Our ryokan had many different onsens, or hot spring baths, some outdoors and some inside. There were different sections for the men and for the women, and everybody switched twice a day. Our room included thirty minutes in a private bath, which was large enough for an entire party! This is the private bath. I couldn't take the picture of the much more beautiful public baths, because naked people were soaking in them! Below are the showers in the private bath.

Our room also included meals, and we had an amazing fourteen-course dinner which I can’t even begin to describe. The waitress brought us dish after dish, and everything was delicious and presented so beautifully! I neglected to bring my camera to dinner, but I did take pictures of breakfast in the morning, which was also amazing!
breakfast at the Ryokan

Ryokans with hot springs provide traditional robes and jackets which guests can wear in the dining room and everywhere in the hotel, and even in the village if it's warm enough. We returned to Tokyo on Christmas Eve night, so I got to feel like I definitely had a celebration even though it wasn’t the usual Christmas celebration!
Itsumi and me at breakfast, in the ryokan's robes


Anonymous said...

Hello Kimi,

This is a fabulous post, and the photographs of the snow monkeys are simply wonderful. I liked what you wrote about that old snow monkey, too.

Congratulations on your new job in Japan! When you have the chance, I would love to hear more about it.


Lisa said...

Hi Kimi

Loved your descriptions and photos, it was wonderful to share, and how beautiful everything looked, the rooms, the food, everything with that dainty Japanese precision!