Christmas in Japan

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Kobe Harborland

Christmas over here is very different from England; it’s not an official holiday and you don’t get a day off if it falls on a weekday. There is no feeling of a countdown to a cosy time with family and gift-giving. Instead, it’s a commercial affair that is directed mostly at couples – and after having been out on the evening of the 25th I can testify that everywhere you look, you’re gonna see a couple. It’s funny and surreal. And everybody tries to go for a KFC if they can.

Japan does have the equivalent of a family holiday that Christmas is to England – it is celebrated on New Year’s Eve, much like in my home country Russia. I’m yet to experience the Japanese New Year celebrations, but that will come later, when I set off for Tokyo in a few days.

I managed to have a very lovely Christmas with my Oxford friends, who feel more like a family by now. Whenever it’s holiday time, or even my birthday, I feel strangely down – something many people experience. However, we were lucky to have days off on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, so I was determined to try and cultivate a festive mood.

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Willkommen zum Weihnachtsmarkt

We all went to Osaka on the 23rd to visit a German Christmas market. That was a surreal sight, because the market is right next to the Umeda Sky Tree building, amidst a steel jungle, and yet there was an atmosphere of a small and cosy European Christmas market. I guess this is how Chinese tourists feel when they visit the London China Town – it’s cute and sells familiar food, but something is a bit off. To top off the confusion, we went to a lovely Indian restaurant nearby, and enjoyed the cultural mix that our little Christmas outing turned out to be.

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Mini-feast

The 24th was a quiet day, spent watching Doctor Who Christmas specials and doing last-minute present shopping. By the morning of the 25th we had an impressive mountain of presents under a tiny Daiso-made Christmas tree in Hannah’s room. This was the cutest time – opening funny presents from each other and our families; helping each other not to feel homesick. Then we slowly started cooking Christmas dinner (I contributed mostly with my presence since I’m terrible in the kitchen). Frank made the loveliest vegetarian burgers! After eating together we crawled out of our comfy sits to go to Kobe’s Harborland, an area full of shops and other attractions. They had an open-air ice skating rink right by the sea and it really felt like a magical evening. We finished it off with a ride on the ferris wheel and spontaneous face-timing with our parents.

So, I managed to have a great Christmas in Japan, even though the country hardly acknowledges it as a holiday. It’s all thanks to my friends, of course.

New Year’s is next and I’m very excited, as I will be in Tokyo for it! I will update with my experience in a couple of weeks, because I will be on the go for the nearest future. Hopefully it will be a great time.

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Kobe Luminarie

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On January 17, 1995, at 05:46 am JST, Kobe was shaken up by the Great Hanshin earthquake, otherwise known as the Kobe earthquake. Up to 6,434 people lost their lives; around 4,600 of them were in Kobe. According to wikipedia, this was the second worst earthquake of the 20th century in Japan.

I asked one of my Kobe language instructors, Ito-sensei, about his experience of the event, and this is what he shared:

Back in 1995 he was a student around my age, living alone in an apartment block on the second floor. At around 4 am he just finished writing a last-minute essay, and settled into bed to get some much-needed rest. That night he would not get any. Japanese people are very used to experiencing earthquakes in their sleep, so initially he did not think much of the shaking. However, when the first floor collapsed through to the ground floor car park, it was clear he needed to get out fast. Back then Ito-sensei wore glasses, but he could not find them in the dark, and he could not even use a lighter to help him search, as the electricity was out and there was a smell of gas in the air. After grabbing whatever he can, he had to jump out of his window, as there was no other way to get out. It took a long time for help to come, because the phone booths have fallen over and were unoperational. That night Kobe had some rare mid-January snowfall, though Ito-sensei could hardly appreciate it, waiting outside barefoot.

Most people of my parents’ generation and above seem to remember this earthquake, even in the West, and were concerned for me when I shared that my year abroad was going to take place in Kobe. However, the city today is fully revived, and only small tremors can be occasionally felt – I already experienced one in October and it felt just like being in bed on a train. Of course, today’s safety is no reason to forget the tragedy of the Kobe earthquake.

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This is why every year Kobe organises the Luminarie, which is a 9-day memorial, done by creating intricate light-up displays along the central streets. Moreover, the event attracts hundreds of tourists, promoting what a lovely city Kobe is. It happens every November and also helps create a bit of a Christmasy atmosphere as people start shopping for the holidays.

I went to see the display with some friends on a Monday night, and the crowds were huge, despite it being a work day. It probably took us 2 hours to walk through a street that normally takes around 15 minutes. Definitely a recommended experience, though. The light displays were breathtaking, and at the end of the street there were many stalls with food and souvenirs. There was a festive atmosphere, which is quite strange for a memorial, but I guess it is hard to remind people of the tragedy when all they want is to enjoy themselves. The organisers clearly tried to give it a more serious feeling by playing some dramatic Bach music, but the resulting mood felt a bit strange – a clash between celebration and mourning. I guess it gave the Luminarie a special charm.

P.S. Fun fact: after the earthquake, because the phone lines were down, the police struggled to help the citizens. Instead, the city was rescued by the yakuza, who were quick to offer supplies and shelter, and are still prominent in the city today!

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Cat cafes – paradise, or?..

Japan is famous for the quirky cafes it has, and in particular for the cafes based around animals. This was a concept I eagerly researched for many years, long before the first cat cafe opened up in London. Now that I’m here in Japan, I’m not so sure that I like what I see.

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In a Japanese cat cafe you can pet cats and read manga at the same time

I guess the London cat cafe, which I finally visited for my birthday this year, has set the standards high for me. England’s animal welfare protection is by no means perfect, but I was pleased to learn about all the requirements the people opening Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in London had to fulfil. The cats have to stay healthy, be vaccinated, get enough rest and exercise, be fed properly, etc. They certainly seemed happy enough when I visited. Like many people, I expected a bit more of visiting a cat cafe than what I got: I did not get immediately swarmed by purring fluffballs, but the cats don’t mind making new friends if you approach them carefully and don’t disturb their sleep. The best part was watching the little star of the show, Lizzie, interact with one of the waitresses, as she deigned to walk inside one of those giant wheels for cats, demanding attention and affection in return.

Recently I made it to one of Kobe’s cat cafes. You could tell that here in Japan it’s a far less unusual experience, as the waitresses welcomed us just like in a normal cafe, and there were far fewer decorations than in the London one. Still, the cats seemed to have the facilities they needed, although the room was a bit dark and small. Both in this one and in the London cafe, the cats mostly wanted to sleep and not be disturbed. However, I noticed that here in Japan they looked extra sluggish, a bit too fat, and some of them had untreated eye infections. In general, the poor animals just looked very done with all this human attention. Also, in Japan the care for the cats really varies depending on the cafe, especially as the Japanese laws are far less strict than the British ones.

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Baron, my absolute favourite from Kobe’s cafe. He slept and snored the whole time.

Japan does really lack in terms of animal welfare. I heard many things, such as that zoo enclosures here are much smaller than in England. I also made the mistake of looking into one of those tiny pet shops that can be found on any major shopping street… the puppies and kittens were trapped in tiny cages, and apparently they get killed if they are not sold by the time they grow into adults. Another thing that really bothers me is the fashion for owl cafes – they are almost as common as the cat ones. But cats have more or less adapted to human attention, being awake at daytime, and living in a small room. Owls have not, they are animals that naturally want to be awake at night, and surely should have the freedom of using their wings in wide spaces, rather than being caged. And Japan just keeps on coming up with new cafe ideas – bunnies, hedgehogs, and… goats?! I’d rather pass up on the joy of seeing one of those animals in favour of them living a free life.

This is probably the least happy post on this blog so far, but it must be said – animal welfare in Japan needs improvement! There are so many glorious wild animals roaming the Japanese countryside, but my glee from that thought is dampened as soon as I remember how tired the cats looked in the cafe. Unfortunately, I added to their struggles by visiting, but I will not be going again.

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Cute but unnecessary gendering of cat toilets in Kobe’s cafe…

Shopping in Osaka

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Pretty much an Osaka landmark – iconic crab restaurant

In Japan you can really feel the countdown to New Year’s Eve. Yes, not Christmas – the holidays here are spent the other way round from Britain, with Christmas being a time spent partying or dating, and New Year spent at home with family. Aside from the annoying all-year-round Christmas shops, I’ve been spotting festive decorations even before Halloween. By now there are lights everywhere, and people around me are chatting about plans for the end of the month.

I’ve also been in a bit of a planning frenzy, booking tickets to China for February, and trying to organise a Tokyo escape with classmates for New Year. Everyone’s low on money because of this, so we pushed plans of going to the famous Osaka Spa World (I’ll write about this gem later when I get to go!), and went shopping instead.

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Busy Shinsaibashi in Osaka

Kobe is a lovely town with just enough to get by on a daily, or even weekly, basis. But I’m used to London, full of options of where to go and what to do, and Osaka provides that and more. For example, I’m a bit starved for European brands of clothing. I’ve been trying to find good Japanese women’s fashion shops, but so far they are more cutesy and less practical. Also, I never thought that my shoe size (UK 6, EU 39) is big, but it seems like a bit of a rarity in Japan! I’ve been warned about this before coming, but it’s still surprising to see lots of tiny shoes everywhere. In terms of what European brands I noticed in Osaka, there is a good range: Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Lush, Bershka, etc. These were enough for a budgeting student getting some layers for the winter.

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That festive feeling

Normally I love going to a big shopping centre like Westfield to browse stuff all day long for recreation. However, to me Japan seems like a bit of a capitalist hell. I keep trying to get used to it, but going shopping here is extremely chaotic, especially in the Sannomiya area of Kobe – there are too many colours, objects, and signs everywhere, and I simply can’t concentrate on what I need to find. Thankfully, Osaka was a bit more organised and familiar, though the sheer range of shops available on the giant shopping street in Shinsaibashi made my head spin. Osaka is also famous for its Brighton-esque vintage shops, some of which we peeked in, but it’s such a different world of stuff compared to what I’m used to that I had to idea what to look at.

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Never enough purikura 🙂

One thing Japan is brilliant for is gift shopping. There are so many random but awesome items everywhere, and there seems to be a shop for everything. I’m addicted to Daiso, which I might have mentioned before: it seems to have all the household items you might need for just 100 yen (£0.69 as of today). Another shop I adore is Tokyu Hands: the one in Kobe has more than half a dozen floors of every category of item, and it’s absolutely perfect for finding presents, especially if you don’t know the person that well, as it gives you lots of ideas. I’ve been recommended the other famous 100 yen shop Don Quijote before, but that was a terrible experience, as again it was too chaotic to find anything. Have a look here if you want to see some of the crazy stuff you can find in Don Quijote.

The scariest bit of shopping in Japan for me has been the drugstores – they are full of names and things I’ve never heard of. This is one of the difficulties of moving to a new country in general: not knowing what products are reliable, and having to get used to it all very quickly. I’ve been googling popular beauty products in Japan, so one day I’ll brave one of the drugstores and write about it if I survive. 🙂