In the last decade or so, the Japanese have taken to Christmas in a big way, discovers

Each December I feel like going for a Christmas experience abroad. My first exposure to Christmas away from India was in Salzburg where I had gone to do a management degree in tourism. It was weeks before Christmas and the city exuded a festive aroma. Crowds lined up to buy Christmas gifts and then to parcel them at the post office. City squares showcased Christmas trees in different sizes and decorations. It was a scene that remained etched in my memory. But somehow or the other, I have not been able to travel abroad in December after that.

This year, however, I did get the amazing feel of Christmas in a land and at a time that I had least expected. Mid-November I was totally struck by the illumination of trees with fairy bulbs, tall Christmas trees at every nook and corner, and cut-outs of Santa Clause and reindeer in all the cities of Japan! Knowing that Japanese don’t adhere to a single religion but practice rituals of Buddhism and Shinto religions, I decided to soak in the Christmas surprise and shot some pictures to capture Japan’s love for Christmas. I was fascinated to see a Santa adorning Shanghai Street in the world’s largest Chinatown in Yokohama, then a tall Christmas tree with a bell in the open arena of the Red Brick warehouse and some trees appearing to be covered in snow while it was still autumn. It was a real Christmas party.

My eagerness to grab it all was noticed by the guide on our bus in Tokyo, as her first sentence was, “The Japanese love to celebrate festivals.” The festival being still a month away, I asked her how come it started so early and she told me with a smile that all the lighting and displays came up by the end of October every year. This kind of fanfare I had not even seen in Europe or back home with a much larger population of Christians. An interesting reaction came from a friend here who, on seeing the pictures, asked me if I had gone there the last year for Christmas!

So when did Japan start celebrating Christmas on such a scale? It was in the 16th Century that the land came in contact with Christianity with the arrival of the Europeans. What’s even more startling is the fact that it was only a decade or so ago that the Japanese were bowled over by the romance of Christmas. No wonder the Japanese developed their unique manner of celebration, where couples love to go out for an exclusive dinner on the eve of the festival. For the Japanese, it is about happiness and nothing to do with religion or rituals. Interestingly, December 25 is not even an official holiday for the Japanese and hard-working as they are, they go to work. Americans will be surprised to learn that Kentucky Fried Chicken has turned into a special dish for Christmas dinner and people order it days in advance, often standing in long queues before KFC outlets. So what about Christmas cake? That is also an interesting discovery made with sponge cake, strawberries and whipped cream. They also have the Japanese term ‘Meri Kurisumasu’ and in their inimitable politeness they address Santa as Santa San or Mister Santa! The landmark Tokyo Tower offers a special chair for visitors to pose for a photograph against the signage ‘Merry Christmas at Tokyo Tower’ and everyone does pose there, just as I did. The Tokyo Tower dinner is all sold out well in advance, said my newly acquired friend Natsuko Tomita, with whom I talked at length about Japan’s culture and festivals.

Japan offers a unique and long Christmas feast from end-October to Christmas Eve with an extravaganza of lights that make it a fairytale experience that no other country gives. This year with the election results just out and share prices rising in no time at all to touch the highest point since April, Japan will be all set to make the last leg of the Christmas party even more lavish, a curtain-raiser for the new Prime Minister taking power on December 26.