If you’ve ever been to Japan during the festive season, you’ll probably know that once you go a little beyond the tinsel decorated surface, Christmas here is a far-cry from its western origins. The differences are largely because most of the Japanese population aren’t Christian, so the way the holiday is celebrated here is removed from its religious roots. Although it may not be what you’re used to, it’s still a whole lot of festive fun and an excellent time to be in the country.  

KFC for Christmas dinner

Japan’s seasonal love affair with the colonel is the stuff of legends. For many western folks, the idea of lining up in the cold on Christmas eve at your local KFC franchise sounds like lunacy. Still, these days it’s a much-loved, widely followed Japanese tradition, one that started with a very clever marketing campaign back in 1974. In Japan, turkey is near impossible to find, so legend has it that when the nation’s foreign Christian population realized they would be able to celebrate Christmas with a turkey, they opted for the next best thing they could find easily – fried chicken.

The KFC heads took notice and launched a Christmas campaign targeted at locals and foreigners alike, and the slogan ‘kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ or ‘Kentucky for Christmas!’ It caught on with unprecedented success, and now over four decades later, it’s gone from a marketing campaign to a fully-fledged tradition. The fact that colonel sanders also looks like he could be Santa’s brother probably doesn’t hurt the image either

Annually Christmas marks the busiest day on the KFC calendar, and some folks queue for as long as two hours, while some meal sets are so popular that they must be pre-ordered in advance. Price-wise it’s not cheap either. For context, the standard party box, which has eight chicken pieces, a shrimp gratin, and a triple berry tiramisu cake, is ¥4,000 (roughly $40 USD).

Photo credit: Ian Muttoo, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Illumination displays 

During the tail end of the year, when it’s getting cold and you’re ready to hibernate, Japan puts on some of the most spectacular public light shows, all free of charge. It’s Christmas lights taken to the done to the nth degree. But expect less Santa’s workshop and more sci-fi fantasy. 

Filling the streets across the nation with magical, are meticulously-curated LED displays, impressive enough to draw you out into the freezing cold, they’re an unofficial Christmas tradition and incredibly popular with young loved-up couples. Arguably the most impressive ones you’ll find are in Tokyo’s more popular and upmarket neighbourhoods like Roppongi, Shibuya, and Shinjuku.

Christmas eve, the new Valentine’s Day?

As well as being the unofficial day of KFC, Christmas-eve has also been designated – unofficially again, but widely adhered to – as the most romantic day of the year. It’s essentially Valentine’s Day, but with extra seasonal cheer. 

Trying to get a booking at a fancy restaurant on Christmas eve is essentially impossible, as hotels and restaurants are booked out months in advance in celebration of this special day. It’s also an incredibly popular time to promise marriage. Supposedly the pressure to find that special someone for the holiday is so strong that many younger folks go on the hunt for a boyfriend or girlfriend in the weeks before Christmas, just so they can have someone to go on a date with. 

Strawberry cake for Christmas? 

When most of us think of ‘Christmas cake,’ the first image that comes to mind is the dense, rich cake stuffed full of fruits, berries, and drenched in brandy and custard. But as you may have guessed by now, in Japan, they do things a little differently.

As the festival season approaches, you’ll find bakeries and department stores advertising a cake that looks a little different from what we’re used to. Japanese Christmas cakes are lush, strawberry shortcakes, complete with a light sponge for the body, and soft, fluffy whipped cream as icing, with red, ripe strawberries on top. 

The first reported appearance of the Christmas cake in Japan was in 1910, when Fujiya, a European-style pastry shop in Yokohama, advertised a more western incarnation of the cake, with a rich, liqueur-soaked fruitcake base. Local bakers, however, considered the classic brown of the cake to be too ugly, so they decorated it with snow-white royal icing, complete with little Christmas trees, and later strawberries when the country started farming them so they could grow in the winter.

Photo credit: ume-y, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Lift your holiday spirits and rediscover Christmas when in Japan. End your experience on a high note by retreating into the comfort of your own private chalet.

Header image photo credit: Wei-Te Wong, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0