14 December 2012

What is Christmas like in Japan?

This is my second December in Japan. Right about this time last year, we flew over to Nagoya for our home finding trip. My first time in Asia, my first time in Japan, my first time in the city I would soon be calling my home, and one of my first thoughts was 'Woah, hellooooo Christmas." Just like that, with the oooos draw out and everything.

For a country with a 1% Christian population, Christmas is HUGE here. Lights, Santa, trees, elaborate store displays -- it's on every inch of public space. At the post office today, there was even a stack of what appeared to be Christmas wrapped toilet paper, complete with a cardboard Christmas tree on top (I asked to take a photo of it, but the woman said no. To which I tell my future self: Never ask, only apologize). There seems to be a fascination and embrace of western culture, and without things like 'Thanksgiving' and 'widespread belief in Jesus' to hold people back, Christmas came to Nagoya on November 1st. Pumpkins came down. Poinsettias went up. Topiaries of woodland creatures were placed in those poinsettas. I don't get it either, but I love it.

Perhaps I would find it a bit overwhelming if I was still in the States, but I love the early Christmas season in Nagoya. It reminds me of home, it eases the cold weather, it generally makes me feel all happy and cheerful. I love shopping for presents, I love lights, I love Christmas movies; I insist on watching The Grinch at least five times during December. The decorations remind me of home, even if it's not exactly the same. (See topiary animals and dog playing the lute next to a rooster, above.)

As you may assume, Christmas is totally commercial and secular here and not an official holiday. It's a season for lights and ornate shopping displays, but people are not bringing trees into their home or leaving out cookies for Santa. Christmas cakes -- white cakes with strawberries and cream frosting -- are popular and sold everywhere from fancy department store cafes to 7-11s. The big place to eat on Christmas Eve or Day is KFC... as in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Lines are super long, and if you want a bucket, you have to preorder weeks in advance.  People say it's because people here think of chicken as a traditional Christmas food, and KFC is a logical place for chicken. I like to think it's because Colonel Sanders and Saint Nick bare more than a passing resemblance. Christmas Eve is a popular date night, akin to our New Years. Japanese New Year's, on the other hand, is a quiet, family holiday, with rituals and traditions to bring luck and good fortune to your family. Shrines and temples, not clubs and bars, on Japanese New Year's Eve.

Instead of holiday cards, Nihon-jin send New Year's postcards. Department stores and post offices are stocked full of beautiful decorated cards for the year of the snake. (I never thought I'd write 'beautiful' and 'snake' together, but there you go.) Special postage rates are given, and it's only an additional ¥20 to send it abroad (about 25¢ USD). That's probably what Amos and I would have done, if, you know, we had gotten our act more together. Next year! Cultural immersion! Being adults! Saving money because, whew, the few cards we did send were not cheap.

The one major downside to the holidays here (besides, you know, having our families across the ocean) is that it is all said and done early morning on December 26th. Light season is over. Decorations come down, Christmas music is off, and the country moves on. New Year's, the bigger holiday, takes over. Lucky for us, we are taking off this weekend and won't be back until January 2nd, missing the depressing de-Christmas-ing, but still getting in on the New Years festivities. Where are we going, you ask? Oh, just a little place called NEPAL. Yeah, that's a whole 'nother post. Wait for it.

Until then... Merry Christmas!

07 December 2012

Amerika-jin desu.

I'm sitting in my Nagoya apartment, just after sundown on a Thursday. I'm a walking cliche of an American in Japan: My day today was a Japanese lesson, followed by a yukata (summer kimono) sewing class, to which I biked to-and-from, blustery weather be damned. I'm now at my breakfast bar, drinking Nihonshu (known in the States as sake), eating edamame, trying to get a little writing in before Amos gets home from work.

It's very 'American in Japan' because I am pretty positive a Japanese housewife would be
1) cooking dinner for her hardworking husband,
2) have cooked bento (or packed lunch) for said hardworking husband, and
3) have gotten dressed at some point today.

I, on the other hand, am rolling around in yoga pants and a workout shirt, content to sort out dinner only once Amos comes home and is here to cook with me. I rarely make him lunch, but he seems happy with the breakfast bars I faithfully stock in the fridge and the conveniently-located-Indian-restaurant-with-a-lunch-special. Also, I totally overcooked the edamame, and I'm eating it anyway.

I am so not a Japanese housewife.

In so many ways, though, my life is remarkably different than it was in America.

I find myself like this -- this somewhere in the middle bit -- quite often. I'll be doing one thing, but I'm not doing it quite like everyone else. I can be in Japan, I can learn Japanese, I can pick up the rules and the manners and the behaviors, but I cannot help but think American. My sweet friends from the UK cannot help but think British. My Japanese friends, teachers, and students cannot help but think Japanese. It's a perspective, and no matter how well travelled you are, how much of another culture you absorb, I think that essence stays with you for a long time, giving you a perspective inherently shaped by your home land.

The longer we live here, the more I'm recognizing the inevitable irreconcilable opinions. My perspective is shaped by the moral standards of my country, the family I grew up in, the places I have lived, and there are fundamental truths that I hold that people dear to me do not. Now, please don't worry. This isn't all heavy things like 'gender-roles,' and 'business practices,' and 'mass-transportation etiquette.' It can be really simple. It can be breakfast.

I am American. Ergo, doughnuts are inarguably a BREAKFAST FOOD. Apparently to the rest of the world, this is ludicrous. Logically, I know that fried and sugared bread is not the World's Best Breakfast. I know it spikes my blood sugar and sets me up for all-day sugar cravings, and, no, I don't eat it every day, but in spite of the ridiculousness, doughnuts are a breakfast food. Always have been. Always will be. I don't care what the Europeans and Asians say. (When I say it's a breakfast food, I don't mean to imply I won't eat them at any time during the day. Come on. They are delicious.)

This is what I'm talking about. It's breakfast food, people. It's the fact that savory flavors rule the breakfast for a Japanese person, and sweet takes the cake for an American. (Please ignore the BMI comparisons between the two countries for the sake of this argument. I KNOW.) Salmon will never, ever, ever be a breakfast food to me... or miso soup, rice, or tofu. ごめんなさい.

What I've learned is to keep my mouth shut, and simply observe the silliness / brillance / sexism / inefficiency / breathtaking beauty of the what I see, of other peoples' truths, of their likes and dislikes, of what they consider to be 'right.' To be inspired by the care that the Nagoyans put in their daily appearance. To be impressed by the time that Japanese mothers take with their families' bentos. To laugh at myself at the mountains of forms (that all have to be stamped at least six times) to do anything with the Japanese government. To let the oft-entrenched sexism roll off me. To be always awed by the efficiency of the rarely-late-train system. To know that the more I experience, the more my perspective will be changed by what I see, and my expat experience will shift my thinking and leave an impression on my heart. These days, however, I'm mostly accepting and trying to appreciate that I'll always be Amerika-jin.... In-public-yoga-pants-wearing, morning-doughnut-eating, and all.*

*Dude, they're lulu-lemon. It's totally kosher.

Adorable Mister Donut Pon Lion images from here and here.

For an equally entertaining Pon Lion commercial, please watch this
It's almost enough to forgive Japan for insisting donut shops need not open until 11AM.
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