Christmas to New Year in Japan

28 Jul 2021

As many of you may be aware, Christmas is not celebrated in Japan where the majority of the population observe the very intriguing religion of Buddhism.

The ‘Christmas Illumination’ is beautiful and the displays spring up everywhere.

Transforming buildings, streets and parks into Christmas markets and beautiful winter scenes with Christmas decorations and light displays that are truly world class!

People come out in masses to take in this amazing makeover which will be completely gone without a trace on the 26th making these areas limited time only, must see displays! Once gone, the Christmas decorations are immediately replaced with very traditional New Year adornments.

In keeping with the very different traditions in the Japanese culture from our own, there is not a company Christmas party, but rather a year end party and it’s not cocktails and dancing…… it is held at the local onsen (hot bath house)!!!

We are quite lucky because this particular Onsen is only a short walk from where we live making this one event that we don’t need to take the train to get to. There are many levels of bath houses throughout Japan and this one is high end! The sprawling facility covers 7 floors, all of which are a flurry of activity. The 7th is of course where the locker rooms and actual hot bath areas are located, along with a generous gift shop surrounding the reception area where many ‘spa-type’ products and much more can be purchased.

The floors below offer all the pampering spa treatments one would expect including massages, reflexology, facials, body scrubs…. They have relaxation rooms with recliners where you can watch satellite TV, DVD’s or play kid’s games, there is a healing room (?) and of course restaurants and numerous vending options. The top level has a panorama foot relaxation garden which I am sorry to say we missed! To our surprise we learned one can even stay overnight here which is a nice option over a hotel, or when you stayed for one too many at the pub and missed the last train home as tends to happen to the odd expat from time to time, or so we have been told!

There is little doubt that this Onsen is surely meant to be enjoyed for a whole day and the idea is once you check in and get your locker key (equipped with a computer chip) you go and get changed into ‘happy suits’ and roam around freely! Any food or service you wish to enjoy is automatically charged to your locker key which must be turned in and cleared before you are given a swipe card which opens the exit gates so that you can leave.

There are many private banquette rooms here which are catered for specific events, such as this year end party where everyone must pay their share in order to attend!!! This was certainly a surprise the first time around and seemed a bit chintzy, but is in fact well worth the money at around $100/head which includes all day access (10am-3am the next day) to the facility and a 3 hour Japanese party experience with delicious food, abundant lavations and a bit of entertainment.

The party began at 2pm sharp with the boss; Ikenaga-san at the front of the room, mic in hand welcoming everyone and wishing us and the company a prosperous new year, which is immediately followed by a version of ‘cheers’ and the first sip. In Japan ‘kampai’ is the toast that is almost sung out and sounds more like a chant than jovial good wishes. On this day, precisely after the first sip was drunk I immediately felt woozy and thought “Oh no! Am I sick? I’ve had one sip! What’s….?” Then it sinks in, earthquake! Phew! As you may expect the earthquake was a pretty good one 5.5M and it was of course determined to be good luck to occur at that precise moment ☺

We were a group of nearly 50 and although Mark & I were not the only Gaijin, we were the only white faces in the crowd and I was one of about 10 women in attendance. The long, narrow room is set up with two long rows of tables end to end and (legless) chair backs with cushions to make sitting on the floor more comfortable, assuming that is actually possible! There is ample space and thankfully there is a lot of room under the table for us Gaijin to stretch our legs out LOL.

The food was once again, some of the best Japanese food we have had since moving here! So fresh, perfectly prepared, incredible variety and no gross surprises thank you very much! We stared with sashimi and a couple of salads while we (meaning the Japanese men we sat with) cooked our own ‘hot pot for 4’ with veg and chicken pieces & mince that is scooped into the boiling broth in chunks out of a large piece of bamboo used as a serving tray. A hot, steaming stew was brought to us ready to serve and it was amazing.

Later, we were served sushi, yummy. As you may guess desert is not generally part of the meals here which is fine because we ate a lot. To wash it all down; beer, wine, shochu (distilled spirit from rice) mixed with green tea and sake of course!

Interesting fact: friends recently enlightened us to the fact that ‘sake’ literally translated means ‘alcohol’, so when you go out and ask for sake you are announcing to everyone that you truly are Gaijin and apparently quite uninformed….so if you are in Japan and want sake, you should ask for Nihonshu ☺

During the course of the party many people shuffle around to visit with and toast the boss and other work mates.

There were a few little kids present and they were thriving on the energy in the room, buzzing around like bees.

We were also treated to live music by two very spirited musicians on keyboards and acoustic guitar, belting out a very lively set of modern jazz music.

Mark & I had decided to wear our Christmas antlers to the party and they were a bit hit, especially when the camera came out!

Just when you start to think “wow I’m full, what time is it?” the boss is back up front, holding that mic, talking a mile a minute with the odd English word mixed when we both realized we heard him say Mark Farrell! We looked at each other as he was called again, up on his feet, mic pushed in his hands and I hear “Mark-san please say a few words about safety in under 2-minutes”. I will point out the fact that the “under 2-minutes” part was left out for the others who were called upon! That’s my Marko I say with a big smile on my face LOL ;)))

Considering a few beers had been consumed and he was certainly in relax mode up to that very second, he made a commanding and heartfelt toast which did in fact extend well beyond the allotted 2-minutes! I could go on to say that the passing back of the microphone was a bit of a back and forth and it was not readily relinquished, but that would be an exaggeration regardless of how much I know Mark likes the spot light! (said with love and admiration of course!)

A few more (less than) 2-minute speeches and poof, it’s all over! The people funneled out of that room like marbles rolling down hill and reminded me of kids running out the door for play time. When we reflected back we realized that, not surprisingly, the boss told us twice that it was time to go enjoy the hot bath… in other words “please leave NOW!” LOL

Another interesting fact: When you go out for dinner in Japan it is almost always a 2 hour time limit and if you want to linger, you need to do it somewhere else! So most people are conditioned to leave like clockwork when your time is up.

Time to head up to the Onsen which deserves a bit of explanation, albeit with no photos… The locker room is unremarkable aside from the lotions, creams, hair products and styling tools provided free of charge (or should I say included in the fee) for everyone to use. Nice touch and a common expectation at most Onsens.

This particular one also has a giant vending machine complete with just about everything a girl could need and may have forgotten (no idea if the men have vending on their side…?). The happy suit goes back in the locker and from this point forward it is ‘au naturale’!

On the way to the shower area you can grab a little ‘modesty towel’ that is like a skinny hand towel which is commonly used to drape in front of one’s bits, or be carried brazenly whilst strutting about naked, as it were….

Showering here is quite a ritual and is mandatory before entering the hot baths or saunas. There is always a shampoo and body soap and not far away are disposable razors, toothbrushes and hair brushes – they think of everything! Once you are sufficiently clean you can choose from an assortment of indoor hot baths, or step outside into the cold air and choose from 3 other pools. Usually the pools will vary a couple of degrees in temperature (38c to 40c) and some have jets as well. There is usually a ‘cold pool’ for quick dips which is always good for a thrill! I think I once saw a thermometer at 18c on the cool dip pool! Burrrr…

This is where I would compare that to a polar bear swim if I had ever done one….

This facility also has a herbal sauna (dry) and a steamy salt sauna which is awesome! This little room has about 8-10 tile chairs built into the surrounding wall and each one has a spray wand to wash down the seats and yourself once you are covered in salt. In the middle there is a mound of salt in a 4’ high ceramic pedestal that you scoop up and use as a body scrub, very nice ; ) We also have a large room where a few select treatments can be done on the spot such as the Korean body scrub (painful) that I was encouraged to try. That’s another one for the ‘don’t need to do it twice’ list!

Among the many rules and restrictions for behavior at the Onsen, tattoos are actually not allowed and this is because they don’t want any trouble from gangs, which basically means the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) whose members are covered in tattoos as part of their… umm, culture can I say? They are often missing a pinky finger too… I guess Mark and I don’t look too scary because we have not been turned away yet!

Side note on the temperature at ‘local/rural’ Onsens such as the one we tried last February on the ski hil; they are often significantly hotter with temps as high as 44c! I personally consider this to be boarder line torture and would not attempt to get in water that hot again!!! Mark, apparently did manage to get in and even stayed while!

To finish off our holiday season experiences this year we took part in a Christmas Eve run around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, followed by dinner and drinks at a micro-brewery (boys choice!) restaurant with a few friends from our running group! Very enjoyable.

Mark has to work over Chrstimas but there is a nice chunk of time off that coincides with Japanese New Year celebrations. As usual, we did catch up with most of the family on Christmas morning reminding us what a great invention Skype is! Thank God for that, and all the video chatting apps that have followed.

We brought in the New Year in a casual, yet meaningful way with a nice long walk through some of our favorite parts of town. Our timing was perfect the whole day, from arriving at the Kwan Tai Temple in Chinatown just in time to watch a lion dance, to getting up to the top of Landmark Tower in time to see the sun set behind Mt. Fuji, love it! We finished it up with some delicious Indian food take-away and a long thoughtful look into the future, dreaming dreams and making plans. Perfect!

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas & enjoy a very happy & rewarding New Year!

Originally December 2012/2013

female entrepreneurs living in Japan

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