Christmas in Japan is unlike Christmas anywhere else in the world.
The employees in the shopping centre entrance shout out aloud “Meeri kurisumasu!!!“, the Japanese way of “Merry Christmas”, and welcome you with a deep, elegant bow. Their uniforms sparkle in the colourful lights of the big plastic Christmas trees along the escalators. A big Santa is sitting in a sleigh, surrounded by the sweetest kids I have ever seen (honestly, Japanese kids are just so cute!), taking end-of-the-year family photos. Teenagers in their school uniforms hide behind the curtains of one of the many photo cabins to shoot a so-called “purikura” (from Engl. “picture club”, mini photos with different decorations) with Christmas motives. Wham!’s song “Last Christmas” is played everywhere. In markets, malls, restaurants, the subway, and particularly in karaoke bars. This is where most of the Christmas activities in Japan either start or end: karaoke bars.
Christmas in Japan
When I lived as a high school exchange student in Japan, Christmas was a unique experience. Not only was it the first time that I spent the (for me) most important holiday of the year far away from my family, but also because Christmas in Japan was very different to what I was used to. (For German speakers, I invite you to read my travel book “Pitiless Japanese – A high school year between modernity, tradition, host family and manga“).
As a culture that is traditionally based in the two monotheistic religions Shintoism and Buddhism, Christianity is not very widely spread in Japan (only around 1% of people in Japan are Christians). Whilst the 23th of December, the birthday of Japans’ emperor Akihito, is an official holiday, Christmas itself isn’t. During my homestay in Japan it felt very strange to go to school on these days and to clean up the school building in preparation for the winter holidays, instead of decorating the Christmas tree at home.
Nevertheless, Western traditions have become very popular in Japan during the last decades (e.g., Valentine’s Day, Halloween). After all, it’s a great reason to go shopping and a motivation to celebrate. So, anything Christmas themed that you might search for can be easily found, and there are many offers that make beautiful gifts for your family. Still, Christmas in Japan is not quite a family holiday. Rather, Christmas is famous for its parties with friends, colleagues, and family members.
In my host family, we spent the Christmas Eve at home with family members, friends, and neighbors, each passing by and bringing along some food or drinks. I can’t really tell what the traditional Christmas dish was on that evening because it was a wild mix of everything: pizza, sashimi, chocolate, chips, burgers, pasta… The highlight was the Christmas cake we had as dessert before everyone headed for a karaoke place. And while I stayed at home with some members of my host family, my elder host siblings had made other plans.
Christmas: the perfect opportunity to find a partner
Christmas Eve means that Valentine’s Day is approaching quickly. That’s something that everyone in Japan has in mind, especially the women. If you are lucky to have a partner, you spend the evening with him or her, and invest in your relationship. Among couples it is common to exchange gifts or chocolate but otherwise presents are not a habit on Christmas.
If you are single, you should hurry up to join one of the many Christmas parties to meet someone. Be aware: Valentine’s Day is coming soon! There are indeed many single parties on Christmas. In fact, there are even lots of marriage agencies that organize encounters all over the year with Christmas as “high season” – the fear to be (and stay) single at a certain age is very high among the Japanese.
Aside from public parties, many simply meet up with a group of friends and hope to be introduced to a friend of a friend. The most common kind of Christmas party is probably a meet up at a karaoke place (usually very big, shiny palaces slightly reminiscent of the Disneyland castle). Here you rent a karaoke cabin, order food and drinks to consume in there (although many smuggle in food from outside), and then sing together for hours. If you are lucky on Christmas, you won’t be alone on Valentine’s Day.
Strawberries on Christmas
For me, the high school year in Japan was one of the toughest but also a most informative and enlightening time in my life. I can warmly encourage everyone to make such a high school exchange experience by themselves. If you are a parent, don’t forbid your kids to go but rather make it possible for them, if you can (read also: 9 Reasons why your Kid should go for a School Exchange). There are many scholarships and (nearly) free exchange programs out there and what your child learns during that time can never be paid with money.
Of course, there are many other ways to teach your kids about foreign cultures. Multicultural Kid Blogs and so many others come up with new, great ideas and inspirations every day. One way how culture can be, quite literally, “embodied” is through food. This year I started to share my experiences of Japan and what I’ve learned about the Japanese culture with my family by baking a Japanese Strawberry Christmas Cake instead of the traditional Christmas Stollen and bakery that we have here in Germany.
One anecdote was clearly the story about the strawberries on the cake. In general, fruit are seen as very precious in Japan. In supermarkets they are elegantly wrapped into soft styrofoam and often they make a perfect (and costly) small present. So, you often see strawberries neatly wrapped in chocolate candy paper, one by one, presented on pink plastic grass. During certain seasons a handful of strawberries can easily cost you around 20 USD. So it is no wonder that a Strawberry Cake is such a precious dessert for a special time like Christmas.
I hope that where you live strawberries aren’t so expensive and you can enjoy baking the Strawberry Christmas Cake with your family! Let me know how you liked it and share your photos with us!
Japanese Strawberry Christmas Cake Recipe
|Sponge Cake:||Soaking Syrup:|
Step 1: The Sponge Cake
Before you start, preheat the oven to 320 F / 160 C and line the bottom of the pan and its side with parchment paper.
Add the milk to the unsalted butter and warm it up in hot water.
Put the eggs in a large bowl and beat them with a hand mixer on low speed. Add sugar and beat for about half a minute. Then put the whole bowl in hot water (ideally 160 F / 80 C) and keep on mixing for 1-2 minutes. The egg-sugar-mix should be lukewarm. Then continue to beat the mix on high speed for about 3 ½ minutes until it forms a rippling pattern on its surface. The mixture should fall heavily and the trail doesn’t go away immediately (“soft peak”). Mix the mixture with a balloon whisk evenly.
Shift the pastry flour into the bowl to the egg mix. Gently mix the flour from the bottom with a rubber spatula. Then add the preheated milk-butter mix over the batter. Mix everything with the spatula around 50 times until the batter gets glossy and smooth.
Put the batter at once in the cake pan. Drop the cake pan a fewtimes in order to break any air bubbles in the batter. Then place the batter in the preheated oven and bake at 160 C / 320 F for about 23 minutes. Check with a bamboo stick if the batter is baked thoroughly. Drop the cake a few times to prevent the sponge cake from shrinking in the pan. Cover the cake with wax paper, flip it over and let it cool down. When it is completely cool remove the cake pan. Flip over the cake again and remove the paper.
Step 2: The Soaking Syrup
Dissolve the sugar in the hot water and cool it down. Take 8 (or more, depending of the size of the strawberries) of the best looking strawberries and remove the end. Then cut the other strawberries lengthwise in slices.
Step 3: Slice the cake
Now take the sponge cake and cut it horizontally into two peaces (tip: it’s easier when you put the cake on a turnable plate). Place the upper part on the rack
with the cutting surface facing up.
Add the cherry brandy to the sugar-water syrup, then brush the bottom cake slice with the soaking syrup. Do so on the other cake slice.
Step 4: Whipped Cream and Finishing
For the whipped cream, add the sugar to the whipped cream. Dip the bowl in ice water and whip the cream with a ballon whisk until the “soft peak” stage (it’s important that the cream stays cold! If you are living in a hot country it’s recommendable to put on the air condition or work very fast to put the cake into the fridge!). It’s also recommendable to whip the cream by hand as an automatic hand mixer can speed up too much.
Put the whipped cream on the bottom cake slice and spread it with a frosting spatula. Cover then the surface with the sliced strawberries. Drop more whipped cream on the top and spread evenly. Then put the upper cake slice on top with the syrup-soaked side faced downwards. Apply the rest of the syrup on top of the cake and then cover the whole cake (top and sides) with the whipped cream.
To decorate the cake, put the remaining whipped cream into a pastry bag with a star-shaped tip. Give it a little squeeze to remove the remaining air inside the bag. Now decorate the cake with the cream and strawberries. Add some powdered sugar and the Christmas decoration on top before serving.
Bon appetite! Or as you say in Japanese: Itadakimasu!!
Learn more about Christmas around the world!
Welcome to our fourth annual Christmas in Different Lands series! This year each participating blogger will focus on a different country, sharing a traditional dish and more about Christmas in that country. For even more glimpses of global Christmas celebrations, see our series from previous years (2013, 2014, and 2015), plus follow our Christmas board on Pinterest!
Crafty Moms Share: Nigeria
English Wife Indian Life: India
Living Ideas: Indonesia
Creative World of Varya: Lebanon
the piri-piri lexicon: Portugal
Raising a Trilingual Child: Italy
Pack-n-Go Girls: Austria
Multicultural Baby: Paraguay
La Clase de Sra. DuFault: Chile
Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes: Puerto Rico
All Done Monkey: Haiti