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What to buy, where to go: 40 steps to maximum merriment this Christmas in Japan

by Ben Stubbings

“In Japan, Christmas is for couples”: While this old chestnut still largely rings true, Christmas in Japan doesn’t have to begin and end with a date at KFC. Here come 40 ways to make the festive season here more like the ones you remember from back home:

Decorations and presents

1) There are German-style markets cropping up all over the nation this yuletide, and where better to grab authentic decorations for your tree and home?

Tokyo Skytreetown envisions your “Dream Christmas” as a splendid row of European-style Huette (huts), specially ordered from Germany, offering tasty mulled wines, stollen, sausages and specialized Christmas menus. Not to be outdone, the area around the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka promises its own romantic German Christmas Market (www.skybldg.co.jp/event/xmarkt/2014) with all the trimmings.

If you are in Yokohama, the Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market is also decked out in the ever-popular German Huette style, but Yokohama steps it up with ornaments and dolls from the Erzgebirge region of the country. Meanwhile, Fukuoka’s German-style Christmas Market in Hakata has doubled in size since last year.

However, if you visit only one of these European-style markets this winter, nowhere is likely to capture the spirit of Christmas quite like Sapporo, with its chilly weather and surrounding snow-capped mountains. The German Christmas Market in Odori Park, inspired by sister city Munich, will be the ultimate stop if you’re looking for shopping, music, gifts and decorations in Hokkaido. Workshops on how to make decorations, mulled wine and even speak German will be held in the indoor pavilion.

2) If you want a real tree for Christmas, head over to Ikea If cleaning up pine needles doesn’t sound appealing, Ikea also sells fake trees, along with mulled wine, decorations and cookie cutters. Branches of the Swedish furniture behemoth can be found in Japan’s major cities.

3) A Kokeshi nativity scene combines Japanese imagery and craftsmanship with a storied Christmas tradition. These traditional dolls representing the nativity scene will add something distinctively Japanese to your home this Christmas. Prices range from about ¥1,500 for a tree decoration to ¥24,000 for the full nativity set.

4) If you’re short on time and ideas, the Tokyu Hands‘ Gift Book is filled with practical and cute products. If you haven’t gotten a tree yet, this one-stop shop has them with lights, ready to be taken home. Tokyu Hands can be found in most major cities in Japan.

5) Christmas Company in Daikanyama, Tokyo, is a place where you can feel the festive buzz all year round. Mainly specializing in imported goods from Europe and North America, this tiny store is packed with countless little sparkling ornaments.

6) Isetan department store has made holiday shopping convenient and easy this Christmas season. Their Gift Guide is packed with gift ideas and decorations to make your home Christmas-ready this season. These items can get a little pricey, with a holiday wreath topping ¥20,000.

7) If you want Christmas — a lot of Christmas — head over to Costco This bulk superstore is sure to have super-size Christmas decorations, trees to hang them on, and all your holiday food essentials.

8) Flying Tiger Copenhagen is a great place to look for Christmas goods at reasonable prices from Europe, whether it be a pillow that gives new meaning to the phrase “sleep like a log,” DIY decoration sets or comedy ear warmers. Stores can be found in Kansai and Kanto.

9) Christmas Toys in Yokohama is a long-established store that has sold Christmas goods exclusively since 1986. Also established by world-famous tin-toy collector Teruhisa Kitahara, the Tin Toys Museum and Toys Club next to the store are also well worth a look.

10) For a quick and inexpensive way to decorate your home this Christmas, check out super-convenient ¥100 shops such as Daiso, Can Do or Seria. Their small but cheerful Christmas sections will press all your decor buttons: Think garish “Merry Xmas” banners, gift wrap, tinsel, bows and baubles.

Festive activities

11) Nagoya Port will host Starlight Revue on Christmas Eve, the highlight of which promises to be a 30-minute fireworks display launched over the ocean to the accompaniment of music from 7 p.m. The Free Hills Jazz Orchestra will also perform a special Christmas concert 6-6:30 p.m., and it’s all free. The best vantage point is a short walk from Nagoyako Station on the Meiiko Subway Line, Exit 3. Access by public transport is advised because of expected traffic jams.

12) Tokyo Disneyland is pulling out all the stops with its “Santa Village Parade,” “Electrical Parade Dreamlights” and “Starbright Christmas” fireworks. One thing’s for sure: You won’t need reminding that it’s the festive season once you step inside Mickey’s kingdom. Every event occurs daily throughout the month so you don’t have to miss a thing.

13) Lists upon lists of Japan’s ice skating rinks can be found with a simple Web search, but the venues are numerous and difficult to pick through. With this convenient source, the best rinks in each prefecture are simply sorted for you. Grab a Japanese speaker for the site’s details, then grab your skates and hit the ice.

14) On Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, Roppongi Hills Arena in Tokyo will house an epic Christmas concert. The diverse lineup and schedule can be found at www.roppongihills.com/christmas/2014/event/index.html.

15) Believe it or not, there is a Pokemon heaven: Pikachu and his Pokemon friends are visiting children in Fukushima to celebrate Christmas with them. As a part of their project to support areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, there will be performances by the beloved characters, workshops and free gifts.

16) Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture provides the ultimate Dutch Christmas, boasting a gigantic Christmas tree, visits with Santa Claus and another Christmas Market. The Bubble Dome — basically a life-size snow globe you can climb inside — offers what must be the ultimate in festive photo ops.

17) The 22nd www.fcc.or.jp/xmasScandinavian Christmas Ball promises to be “the social highlight of the year” this Christmas. The event will be held at the Westin Tokyo Hotel on Dec. 12, but registration ends on the 5th. Don your fanciest suit and most glamorous gown for an unforgettable evening.

18) Christmas Fantasy Okinawa 2014 presents a whopping 140,000 lights, laser beams and fireworks accompanied by concerts and dance performances. Held Dec. 23-28, 6-9:30 p.m., at the Okinawa Zoo and Museum in Okinawa City. Tickets range from ¥1,000-2,200 depending on age.

19) Children of 5 years and older can listen to foreign volunteers from four different countries read storybooks in their own languages and lead games, songs and quizzes at the Nagoya International Center’s library (3F) on Dec. 14, 1:30-3:30 p.m. There are only 30 places for this event — the Christmas edition of the center’s once-a-month Children’s Story Book Time sessions — offered on a first-come first-served basis, so best book soon.

20) Share Your Christmas with Tohoku, Japan, is the perfect opportunity to bring Christmas back to those still suffering nearly four years after the March 11, 2011, triple disaster. The concept is simple: Your donated gift is given to Tohoku victims, many thousands of whom are still languishing in “temporary” housing.

All the tasty trimmings

21) Make sure to pop in a Kaldi Coffee Farm to sate all your chocolate cravings this holiday season. This foreign-food grocery is ready to spread some holiday cheer with a wide selection of chocolate candy advent calendars, stollen, snowball Christmas cookies and even tree ornaments.

22) Foreign Buyers Club has a wide range of seasonal items on offer, and on their site you will find decorations, holiday-themed candy and even stockings. FBC delivers across the country, and has a store at its base in Kobe

23) If you’ve been searching for your main dish for Christmas dinner, look no further: The Meat Guy sells a variety of seasonal sets including traditional holiday meats like ham and turkey. Counterintuitively, The Meat Guy also stocks fruit and veg, and there’s a vegetarian section with a few meatless items such as veggie burgers and a delicious-looking roasted vegetable frozen pizza. They ship all over Japan.

24) Sweet Jamaican Things promises authentic Jamaican desserts. During Christmas this online shop sells Jamaican black Christmas cakes from ¥3,000.

25) If you fancy a break from your holiday shopping at Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, you could do a lot worse than making a stop at Whisky Hills Sponsored by Suntory, here you can try whiskys from all over the world.

26) Why not kick back on Christmas Day and let someone else do all the hard work? OpenTable.jp is a one-stop shop — unfortunately only in Japanese — where you can peruse Christmas menus and book some posh nosh at restaurants around Japan. The Christmas section can be found here: www.opentable.jp/s/promolist?metroId=201&promoid=2.

27) As the Christmas period draws closer, keep your eyes peeled for seasonal menus at your favorite pubs, cafes and restaurants. Roti Roppongi is offering Christmas brunches on Dec. 23, a Christmas dinner buffet on Dec. 24-25 and a full-on three-course Christmas lunch on the day itself, too, for prices ranging from ¥2,800-5,600. If you’re in Tokyo or Kobe, the Hobgoblin pub chain is offering a Christmas dinner with Champagne, smoked salmon, turkey and Christmas pudding for ¥5,000 (kids half-price). In Osaka, Absinthe Solaar is offering a multi-course Christmas dinner from Dec. 23-25 for between ¥5,000 and ¥7,000, and a Christmas lunch for ¥2,800. Sister venue Absinthe Cafe is offering Christmas dinner for ¥2,000, which included a turkey pie dinner, appetizer and dessert.

28) For those in Nagoya for Christmas, there are Christmas dinner options at many hotels, bars and pubs in the city. Shooters sports bar and grill offers a Christmas dinner from Dec. 21 to 25. The Sky Lounge at the Marriott Hotel (52nd floor) offers a Christmas buffet through December until the 21st and then a “special Christmas Buffet” for the four days after that. Cafe Pergola on the 15th floor also has a Christmas lunch and dinner from the end of November and reservations are required in advance. The Hilton Hotel in Fushimi, however, does not need a reservation for its Christmas lunch buffet, which starts at 11:30.

29) In terms of supermarkets, Aeon shopping malls boast excellent selections of Christmas food and drink. You can reserve a whole roast chicken in advance.

Seijo Ishii is a luxury mini-supermarket chain specializing in foreign food. At this time of year it has a wide range of imported hams, chocolates, biscuits, beers, wines and champagne.

30) If you don’t feel like searching for turkey or ham for Christmas Dinner, there’s always the option of deciding “When in Rome . . .” and popping into your local Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC is selling two types of Party Barrel for those who feel like celebrating the traditional Japanese way this Christmas.

Christmas services around Japan

31) For a list of Catholic churches in Tokyo and Chiba prefectures with English services, check out the Archdiocese of Tokyo’s website, with links to the churches concerned. For a list of times of Catholic Masses in English (and other languages) throughout Tokyo, see this list on the St. Ignatius Church website.

A list of Anglican-Episcopal churches in Tokyo can be found at www.nskk.or.jp/test_stanby/english/church/churches.html. St. Albans, only a stone’s throw from Tokyo Tower in Minato Ward, is the Tokyo diocese’s only English-speaking congregation. Holy Eucharist Services are held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

32) Among other denominations in Tokyo, on Dec. 13 and 14, Tokyo Baptist Church hosts “Big Band Christmas,” a free event featuring a message, singers and more. Tokyo Union Church declares itself to be an international, interdenominational congregation. This holiday season their calendar is full of events ranging from Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Services to a Tokyo Embassies Choir Christmas Family Concert and Christmas Caroling.

33) Sacred Heart Cathedral, the seat of the Yokohama Catholic diocese, will hold Christmas Mass in English from 10 p.m. on Dec. 24

Yokohama Christ Church, an English-speaking Anglican-Episcopal congregation, also in Yamate, is holding “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” on Dec. 14 as well as the usual Christmas services.

Yokohama Union Church, an interdenominational Protestant church, will hold a Christmas Eve service on Dec. 24 at 7 p.m. in English and a Messiah Concert on Dec. 28, 2 p.m. (¥1,000 admission).

34) You can find a list of English Masses (and those in other languages) across the Catholic Diocese of Osaka, which spans Osaka and Hyogo prefectures. The wreath symbols should help you identify which churches are holding special Christmas services, and when.

35) Expect Christmas services in Osaka in English at the following centrally located churches: St. Paul’s Church near JR Osaka Station, Anglican-Episcopal; Hope Osaka, an informal interdenominational congregation (nearest station Nagahoribashi); Osaka International Church, an interdenominational protestant Christian fellowship near JR Tamatsukuri Station; and Hope Chapel Kita, a Protestant church in the Hankyu Terminal Building 17F in Umeda.

36) You can find a list of Catholic churches in Aichi Prefecture in English with the times of English services marked. To find out about their Christmas schedules, contact the individual churches.

A list of Anglican-Episcopal churches can be found here: www.nskk.org/chubu/church/top_e.html, but no word here of any English services. Nagoya International Center, however, provides a very handy list of English church and other religious services in the city.

37) Kamigoto Church Week promises six nights of classical music in six different churches decked out with beautiful Christmas illuminations in the city of Shin-kamigoto, which spans two of the Goto islands, Nakadori and Wakamatsu, in Nagasaki Prefecture. The events run Dec. 9-14.

38) Visit www.bec.ac for various upcoming concerts from Tokyo Embassy Choir and Tokyo Chamber Singers. As Japan’s leading ensemble of Japanese and expatriate choristers, the Tokyo Embassy Choir will perform at various churches this December, with admission replaced by a voluntary donation to charity.

39) English Masses are held at Kita 1 jo Catholic Church, aka Sapporo Cathedral, with Christmas Mass on Dec. 24 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 25 at 10 a.m. (Japanese-only site here: sites.google.com/site/katedoraru99/home) The International Christian Fellowship Church, a bilingual interdenominational congregation in Nishi Ward, will hold a kids’ Christmas event on Dec. 6, a Christmas Candle Night on Dec. 21 as well as a Christmas service. The Sapporo International Church also has English services.

40) There is no equivalent for Hiraoka-jinja Shrine’s laughter ritual in the Western-style Christmas, but the saying “Fortune smiles on a merry home” can be understood in any context. On Christmas Day in — where else? — Osaka, Shinto priests will lead 20 minutes of pure laughter, followed by laughing contests, comedy performances and a lecture on the mythology on which the ritual is rooted.

Stephen Carr contributed to this article from Nagoya. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

JT critics offer festive flick tips

Mark Schilling writes: The annual Christmas movie is one imported tradition that never really took hold in Japan. One reason is that Christmas Eve has come to be the biggest date night of the year, with more-exciting items on the agenda than flopping in front of a TV to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Of course, millions here will be home on the big night and a few will want to see something Christmassy that doesn’t star James Stewart. For those of you in that minority, here are a couple suggestions:

1) Rent or buy “Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro).” This 1988 Hayao Miyazaki classic may have nothing directly to do with Christmas, but it’s a never-fail heart-warmer with loveable, unforgettable characters (Totoro! The Cat Bus!) and a family-is-precious message. If you and your kids have a serious Miyazaki addiction that an umpteenth viewing of “Totoro” won’t satisfy, try a Blu-ray box set of his films, available now in U.K. and Hong Kong editions, both with English subtitles. Christmas sorted.

2) Rent or buy Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” OK, a 1952 film about a city hall pencil pusher with terminal cancer may not shout “Noel,” but its story of how the doomed hero (played by the great Takashi Shimura) finds meaning by giving his short remaining time to others carries an emotional (never sentimental) punch that rivals anything in Dickens. You may feel like running out of the house to bring joy to the world — or to your local version of Bob Cratchit.

Kaori Shoji writes: A girlfriend of mine makes it a point to rent out horror movies during Christmas, and that’s her way of forgetting she’s single and sad. My suggestion is to take the bull by the horns and wallow in silly love stories. Paul McCartney sang something similar, and this time of year it’s good to pay attention to a cultural icon.

1) “When Harry Met Sally”: A 20th-century classic that elevated the fake orgasm to an art form. Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal star as the titular characters who are best friends but not lovers. The sight of Sally lugging home a Christmas tree all by her lonesome is poignant but stylish, and shows that being dateless over the holidays ain’t a tragedy.

2) “Love Actually”: Few movies can pair love and Christmas without looking like a dork, and this pulls it off. All the characters get a slice off the love cake, including Hugh Grant as a bachelor British prime minister, Emma Thompson as his sister, married to Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley as a newlywed and Martin Freeman as a porn actor. Great fun all the way.