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Festive Traditions In Japan

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Did you know that fried chicken is a Christmas tradition in Japan? And that the festive season is more about romance and gift giving between couples than arranging presents for the kids? Former expat and current Japanese tour company founder Nicki has lots of other fun facts to share from her 10 years living in the country.

So, whether you are an expat in Japan, planning a trip there, or just curious about how Christmas time is recognized in other parts of the world, I hope you enjoy this chat with Nicki.

To make sure you never miss a future episode of the podcast, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter over at expatfocus.com. Hi, Nicki, welcome to the Expat Focus podcast.

Nicki: Thank you for having me.

Carlie: Now, we are here to talk about festive traditions in Japan, and we have dressed up for the occasion. If you happen to be watching this episode on the Expat Focus YouTube channel, I have basically vomited Christmas all over my office. Nicki is wearing a very festive headgear and a lovely scarf and sweater, as well. So we are in the mood.

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Nicki: Yay!

Carlie: Now, we are going to speak about Christmas and what you can tell me about festive traditions in Japan. Japan is not where you currently are, though, so my first question is: why are we speaking on Northern Hemisphere time zones? And tell me about your history with Japan.

Nicki: Well, I met this Japanese guy online and basically at the time, the only objective I had in online dating was: does this guy have an interesting backstory to entertain me for about an hour? So I thought, “Oh, Japanese guy in the Netherlands; he must have some interesting story about how he got here.” So that was all I was thinking about.

So we hit it off and then five years later he said, “Well, I’ve always lived in the Netherlands. How would you feel about moving to Japan and living there for two, three years?” So I said, “Yeah, sure, fine. See if you can find a job. I’ll come along, it’ll be fine.” And it turned out it wasn’t fine.

Carlie: Oh no!

Nicki: Well, I mean between brackets. So the thing is I thought with a Bachelor’s degree it would be easy to find a job there. but it wasn’t because I didn’t speak Japanese at the time.

Carlie: Just a little problem, yeah.

Nicki: Yeah, so I was just applying, applying and it didn’t work out. And then in 2013, I founded my own company. It’s called Tokiotours, and I organize guided tours with local experts that are scattered all over Japan. And in 2020, because of Covid my business basically completely broke down. So it was just raining cancellations.

Since 2018, I’ve been doing it together with a partner and she just had a nervous breakdown, so we decided that she was going to leave the company for a bit and let me deal with everything because it was really getting too much for her. So I was dealing with a move back to Amsterdam and dealing with a company that was basically dead and dealing with a partner or business partner who was mentally and emotionally not doing too great.

So yeah, it was a challenging year, but I’m happy that I pushed through and came back to Amsterdam. So that’s why I am in Amsterdam right now. But I still run my company Tokiotours from here. And fortunately the border with Japan has opened up, so there’s actually a lot of interest in Japan right now. So maybe your viewers or listeners will be interested to learn a bit more about Japan.

Carlie: Can I just say, what a rollercoaster!

Nicki: Oh yeah.

Carlie: I’m really glad to hear that your business survived not only what you were going through with your business partner, but also the pandemic and you’ve come out the other side of it. As you said, Japan’s now opened up for tourism again, which is such a great thing for people like yourself that run businesses based on tourists.

Nicki: Yeah, for sure. It’s been challenging, but I’ve been able to grow my following quite substantially in the last two years. So I’m very pleased that now that the border is opening up again and that interest is growing, that I can finally promote my business again. And we just started with a couple of training sessions with new guys that I recently hired. So everything looks bright, so as long as nothing weird happens in January or February, we should be fine.

Carlie: Well, let’s focus on the Christmas miracle for now that is everything looking bright.

Nicki: That’s good, yeah.

Carlie: On that point, I really wanted to speak to you today about Christmas in Japan. I know when I think about what the Japanese might do at this time of year, I have no idea. So, can you recall, to start with, your first Christmas when you were living in Japan?

Nicki: Yeah. My first Christmas in Japan was back in 2011. I had just started taking Japanese classes and the language school that I was attending had some kind of event. So my husband and I went to the event, and then we celebrated Christmas with all the other international students who were attempting to learn Japanese. So it was quite an interesting experience.

Carlie: And what can you tell me about what sort of celebrations there were?

Nicki: Well, in Japan, Christmas is not really a thing because Christianity is not really a thing in Japan because they mainly have Shinto religion. That is kind of like Daoism, so it’s based on nature and everything around you has its own spirit. And Buddhism also because Shintoism doesn’t have an afterlife.

So basically you are a vacuum cleaner: after you pull out the plug, then it’s over. So, apparently when Buddhism was introduced, the Japanese were very pragmatic in saying, “Well, actually we quite like Shintoism, but the Buddhists have a thing where they have the whole afterlife thing, so we’re going to adopt that part.” So, basically throughout your life, you are a Shintoist until you die, and then suddenly you’re a Buddhist.

So, basically, Christmas is more of a holiday for couples. So it’s very romantic, people like to go out for dinner. As far as families goes, there’s this really weird tradition that started in the seventies, and I know you’re going to laugh when I tell you this, but Christmas in Japan is all about KFC.

Carlie: What?

Nicki: Yes! So apparently in the seventies there was this commercial that was super popular: “You can’t have Christmas without KFC.” And it’s still a thing now like years and years later. So it’s been like 40, nearly 50 years, but still Christmas means KFC. So a lot of people like months in advance order their fried chicken. So Christmas is about fried chicken and strawberry cake.

Carlie: I feel like I need to Google this after our interview to make sure you’re not pulling my leg.

Nicki: Oh no, It’s true. I’m telling you.

Carlie: That’s amazing. So this is basically Japan’s equivalent of a Coca-Cola Christmas that we have in the West.

Nicki: Yes. So Japan has their KFC Christmas, and of course a lot of other companies join the bandwagon, and because KFC is usually sold out for fried chicken, so there are lots of other companies that offer something similar because fried chicken in Japanese is karaage. So there are also lots of people, instead of saying KFC, they say Karaage Christmas.

Carlie: Sounds much more culturally appropriate.

Nicki: Yeah. So it’s either about couples having a romantic dinner or the families have their fried chicken, and…

Carlie: Hold on a second, I’m just going to turn off my heater that just turned on.

Nicki: Oh yeah, I heard it.

Carlie: My bad. Podcasting 101: turn off your air con or your heater.

Nicki: Also, Christmas trees are not really a thing in Japan because they’re extremely expensive. A regular Christmas tree will cost you at least $200 or more, and it’s a real pain to get rid of after the holidays. So not many people actually buy a Christmas tree.

So, New Year’s is more of a thing in Japan where they have these special decorations. It’s usually with bamboo or with pine needles. And that’s something you hang on the outside of the door at the entrance. If you have a company, you usually have a big ornament with something with pines or with bamboo.

And basically what you’re going to do is you’re going to ask a local priest to come to your house and bless these ornaments. And so the priest is going to ask good spirits to come and live in the ornaments for a while and bless the house so no evil can come in, and then you’ll leave it there until January 4th and then your house is all secured and nothing bad is going to happen for the new year.

Carlie: Would you say the new year has a greater significance in Japan than Christmas?

Nicki: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, Christmas is more like Halloween where it’s more of a…

Carlie: Christmas is more like Halloween. I just love this.

Nicki: Like yeah, it’s for people to dress up and wear the cute Santa outfit and have some romantic time. And so it’s not really as we do in Europe or in…

Carlie: The USA, Australia.

Nicki: Yeah, where you have the Christmas tree and you have the presents. So, gift giving around Christmas, unless you’re a couple, is not really a thing. There are a lot of illuminations especially in Tokyo right around now. So they usually start in November and they end in January and basically all over town, there are all these places where they have these light shows where you can see all these different lights.

And there’s one in Shimbashi that comes back every year, and it’s all about Beauty and the Beast, and it’s very romantic. They have this dome with a bell, and you can have your picture taken underneath the dome. So it’s more of a romantic thing than a family gathering type thing.

Carlie: Okay. So it really does sound like, as you’ve said, Christmas in Japan is for couples. So does that mean…I have questions, I have so many questions.

Nicki: Yeah.

Carlie: One: you just made Christmas sound like Disneyland. Japan gets turned into Disneyland for Christmas. Two: it’s about couples. That means it’s not really about the children at Christmas time. And three: presents for couples, but not necessarily for kids. Is this how I understand it?

Nicki: Yeah, because you also have several traditions that revolve around kids in Japan. So you have Shichi-Go-San, that is 7-5-3, that’s what it basically means. And that is a tradition where girls, when they are three or seven, go to a shrine to get blessings and basically give thanks for the fact that they’re still alive and boys do it when they’re five.

So, basically, you go to the temple and give tribute to the priest and give thanks for the fact that your children grew up past this age. So that’s usually when kids get some presents. And then there’s for the girls, Hinamatsuri, so that means Doll Festival. So that’s when you have a kind of little shrine with two dolls that represent the Emperor and the Empress, and sometimes also some of their ladies-in-waiting and other figures that go with the royal family.

So you put that up for the girls. And that’s also basically, yeah, kind of about remembering your female relatives and kind of it’s also related to fertility. So basically, you have to put the shine up at a certain date and then take it back at a certain date. And if you are too late, that means your daughter’s not going to get married.

Carlie: Oh, gosh.

Nicki: Yeah. And there’s Valentine’s Day and there’s White Day. So, basically, Valentine’s Day is for the girls to give chocolates to boys, and the opposite of that is White Day, which is in March, and that’s when the boys give sweets to the girls. And then there’s Kids’ Day, which is all about boys and boys growing up. And so you put on samurai armor or only a helmet if you can’t afford the whole armor, and you tie up streamers with koi fish. And that is basically to kind of celebrate your boys that are growing up and fertile and virile and…

Carlie: Some of this is taking me back to Japanese classes in high school, but I’m pretty sure when we learned about these traditions, we didn’t didn’t go into the fertility and, you know, whether you’re a child’s going to get married or those sort of aspects of the traditions, it was more about painting koi fish.

Nicki: I’m trying to kind of give a brief overview and give the highlights of what the tradition is about.

Carlie: Yeah, so it sounds like there are plenty of other Japanese cultural traditions that celebrate children. So there’s not really a need at Christmastime for children to get presents is what I’m understanding.

Nicki: Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned Disneyland, because in Tokyo you have Disneyland and DisneySea. Those are two different Disney parks. By the way, the DisneySea doesn’t have anything to do with sea, it’s just that they needed a different name and it’s next to the sea. So basically…

Carlie: It’s not underwater Disney?

Nicki: No, no, it’s nothing to do with sea animals or sea creatures or anything like that. But Disney is responsible for kind of adopting the American traditions into Japanese culture. So, Halloween is now a really big thing due to Disney and also Christmas. So if you go to Disneyland, then it’s really over the top. And even the people that go there are really into the Christmas time of year.

So they dress up and they all look alike and they bring their stuffed toy animals and everything. So everything is like, special, time-limited, only for Christmas. So if you come to Tokyo around Christmastime, you definitely need to go to either Disneyland or DisneySea or both, because it’s an amazing once in a lifetime experience.

Carlie: Sounds like Christmas on crack or something.

Nicki: Oh, yes, yes. Like Christmas 2.0.

Carlie: So aside from KFC at Christmas, is there anything else that they eat in Japan or save especially for the Christmas season? I mean, Coca-Cola probably.

Nicki: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that because there’s a real difference in where you are in Japan, because Coca-Cola, you can get everywhere in Tokyo, but for instance, if you go to Kyoto, it’s very hard to find because everyone drinks tea over there. So if you go to a convenience store, you’re lucky if you can find regular Coke. But if you like Coke Zero, it’s almost impossible to find.

Carlie: Gosh, I’m learning new things about Japan every second right now.

Nicki: Yeah. Kyoto and Coca-Cola not so much. But the strawberry cake. So strawberry shortcake is also a thing. So, everywhere you go, all of the department stores, they all have the very nicely made strawberry shortcakes. So that’s what they eat for dessert after they have the fried chicken.

Carlie: Oh, this is just killing me. Fried chicken at Christmas. So I’m curious about what you did, Nicki, when YOU were in Japan at Christmas. Did you partake in the KFC tradition? Did you try to bring in some of your Dutch cultural traditions to Christmastime in Japan?

Nicki: Well, actually in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is more of the thing. So that’s St. Nicholas. I know we have a bad reputation for that with the whole Black Pete thing. But every year around December 5th, if you go to the Dutch embassy, they have this huge party for all the kids where St. Nicholas and, sorry to say, Black Pete come to the embassy and give presents to all of the kids.

And for Christmas, at least from the embassy there is no special celebration. So usually we would spend it with friends, whereas on New Year’s, there are two interesting foods to eat. So there’s a special box that you can buy or make yourself, and it only has cold foods and it has little compartments, and every compartment has some significance.

So that’s really interesting. And then there’s the soba noodles. So, on New Year’s Eve, you need to eat soba noodles because that signifies long life. So if you don’t eat soba noodles, that’s actually bad luck. So definitely buy your soba noodles on New Year’s Eve if you want to have a long life just like the Japanese have.

Carlie: They sound much healthier than the fried chicken at Christmas.

Nicki: Yeah, right? So that is credited to the Japanese people’s long life: soba noodles.

Carlie: Now. I know you do have a child with your ex-husband who’s Japanese.

Nicki: That’s correct.

Carlie: So how did you celebrate the festive season as a family?

Nicki: Well, I mean we would usually go back to the Netherlands around Christmas to celebrate with family. So, my ex-husband’s mom and brother still live in the Netherlands, very close to Amsterdam. It’s like one big community where all the Japanese people live in the Netherlands.

And that’s Amstelveen that is right outside of Amsterdam. So we usually go there for one day, because in the Netherlands you have two days for Christmas, so 25th and 26th. So we usually spend one day with my family and the next day with his, or the other way around, and usually have sushi for Christmas, so, and of course the soba noodles, and of course the special box with the, that’s actually more for New Year’s, but we usually have it around Christmas because we aren’t always there for New Year’s.

Carlie: Does the fried chicken tradition translate for Japanese people living outside of the country at Christmastime?

Nicki: Oh, for sure. I’m pretty sure that they’ll eat it here as well, because Japanese people stick together here in the Netherlands. They don’t mingle a lot. And there are also a lot of Japanese schools here in the Netherlands that either teach only on Saturdays or full days from Monday to Friday. So they usually have some Christmas parties or New Year’s parties, as well. So yeah.

Carlie: Nicki, now that you are back in the Netherlands, what are you missing the most about Japan?

Nicki: What I miss most about Japan? I would say the illuminations. Those are really over the top, really amazing. And there are so many places that you can see them. So, they even, like, if you go to Disneyland, they have these signs, right, that say “Take your picture here”, they have those scattered throughout Tokyo, so you have the best spot to have your picture taken.

Carlie: Oh, so like the perfect selfie spot at every light display. That’s very courteous.

Nicki: Yeah, so there are several that are really famous. So there’s one in Nobokumi where there’s this street and all the trees have lights, and then there’s one in midtown that is amazing. That’s usually like a show where different areas get lit up at different times and things are happening. And the one in Shinbashi is very famous because of the Beauty and the Beast theme.

So every year they try to do something amazing to track people to come there. Oh, and there are also lots of Christmas markets. I forgot to tell you about that. There’s one in Hibiya Park that is really amazing. It has this wooden carousel and it’s like, well, I don’t know what it is in feet because I’m measuring meters, but it’s like 15 meters tall and it has all these wooden figurines and there’s different stories and it goes round and round.

And then there are all these little huts made of wood that sell all kinds of Christmas stuff and blue wine and hot chocolate and everything. So it’s really…

Carlie: It sounds very much like a European Christmas market in Japan.

Nicki: Yeah, it’s kind of like, so there’s like Oktoberfest in Japan that goes from August till November or something because the Japanese like to drink beer, but…

Carlie: Why not?

Nicki: The Oktoberfest thing is kind of, they didn’t get the message there. So it’s for several months. And then I think the Oktoberfest people need something to do so they turn their carts into Christmas…

Carlie: Christmas stalls, right?

Nicki: Yeah, stalls. And then it’s all like wooden chalets and everyone is dressed up and it’s really nice and they usually have some performances. So it’s really fun.

Carlie: I absolutely love how excited you are in describing all of these different things that you can do and see in Japan at Christmastime. And I feel like for someone new to Japan who might be wondering how to celebrate Christmas or what to expect in the country at Christmas, it’s a really nice overview of just how the Japanese do Christmas.

Nicki: Yeah. Actually, in Japan, December 23rd is a holiday, so not the 24th, 25th or 26th.

Carlie: Okay. I feel like I need to start taking notes now.

Nicki: Yeah, because it’s the day the previous Emperor passed away. So usually when an Emperor dies, they turn the day that they died into a national holiday and just give it some kind of weird name like Mountain Day or something and then or Sports Day or whatever.

And then that’s a national holiday and everyone gets to have a day off because Japanese people are notorious for not taking time off. And by having these national holidays, it’s kind of mandatory to have at least one or two days per month that you are not working.

Carlie: So would it be common for a lot of people to start, say, their festive break from around the 23rd and go right through to the new year in Japan?

Nicki: I wouldn’t say go right through. So the 23rd is a day off, so that’s usually a day when people go and see the illuminations or go to the zoo or have their family photo taken or something like that. And then starting December 31st, people start lining up to go to the temple.

So there are a couple of temples that are really popular, like the Meiji shrine, for instance in Tokyo, or the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, for example. So basically, what you want to do is, there are seven lucky gods in the Japanese religion.

So what you want to do is to do this temple route where you go to each temple and you have until the 4th of January to visit all these temples. And then you have the most amount of luck for the next year. So if you can only do one, that’s okay.

Carlie: But not as lucky as getting through all seven?

Nicki: Yes. So basically, what people do at the end of the year on the 31st, either they go to the temple or another thing that’s very popular is to go hiking because Japanese people believe that it’s good luck if you see the first sunrise on top of a mountain. So that’s another thing that they like to do. So they can also do the temple visit; as long as it’s no later than January 4th, it’s okay, and if you can do all seven, that’s even better.

And then you can get like a special wooden arrow from the temple that you can only get around that time that will give you good luck, that will help you reach your goals. And you can drink some special hot sake at most temples. And there are all kinds of other lucky items that you can buy once there and you can get the fortune. And again, Japanese people are very pragmatic.

So if the fortune is good, then you need to keep it on your person and keep it with you for the whole year so it will come true. And if you don’t like your fortune, you can just fold it into a little rectangle and tie it to a special rack and then it’s not going to come true. So either way, you’re good to go.

Carlie: Nicki, this has been a fabulous conversation. It’s like you’re a tour guide, or something.

Nicki: Ah, yeah, kind of. Look at tokiotours.nl!

Carlie: That’s right. Nicki’s website is Tokiotours.nl: T-O-K-I-O tours if you do have a trip or a move planned to Japan and want to book one of her guides to show you around. Nikki, just finally, I’d like to know what’s on the agenda for you in the Netherlands this Christmas?

Nicki: Well, my daughter is currently living with my ex-husband and his new girlfriend in Japan, and my ex is coming to Amsterdam this Christmas. So Sunday the 18th, they’ll both arrive.

Carlie: I was going to say, hopefully your daughter’s coming too.

Nicki: Yeah, my daughter, my ex-husband, his girlfriend is staying behind for whatever reason. That’s not my problem.

Carlie: Exactly.

Nicki: My daughter’s coming, so I’m coming to pick her up and then we’re going to spend some time with her grandmother the first day, and then I’m coming back here to my place and I’m just going to spoil her rotten and we’ll stay in a hotel for a few days and do all these fun things. And then after a week, unfortunately, she needs to go back to Tokyo again, but at least I’ve had her for Christmas.

Carlie: Sounds like it’s going to be a really beautiful family reunion. So I hope you have a fabulous time.

Nicki: Thank you.

Carlie: Well, Nicki, thank you so much for your time chatting on the Expat Focus podcast about festive traditions in Japan.

Nicki: Thank you for having me on. It was a pleasure.

Carlie: That’s it for today. You can learn more about Tokiotours on Nicki’s website and how to move abroad successfully on our site expatfocus.com. It’s jam-packed with country and moving guides and articles from expats sharing first-hand experiences from all over the world. You can also browse our podcast archive and if you want to request a topic for a future episode, get in touch on social media. We are Expat Focus. I’ll catch you next time.

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