When I first moved to Japan, I didn’t expect to encounter so many of my own culture’s traditions—with a twist….

p36-02Japan has a way of taking a custom from another country and uniquely transforming it. From Western-style clothing to Western foods, the Japanese always do it differently, and yet, it somehow seems better than what you’d get in that custom’s country of origin.

So you can imagine that Christmas in Japan can make you feel like an awestruck kid on Christmas morning. Below are a few examples of the many (new!) things I learned about one of my favourite holidays while living overseas:

• Christmas Eve is more romantic than Valentine’s Day … didn’t you know?

• Forget turkey, go and grab yourself a “traditional” KFC meal for your Christmas dinner. (Yup, you read that right.)
• If you think you just saw the most amazing “illumination” ever, just keep driving to the next town or street … Christmas lights are everywhere in Japan—and they’re ridiculously beautiful.

Yup, I learned a lot. But I imparted some of my Canadian Christmas wisdom on locals too. Seeing that eggnog is not available in Japan, I made it my duty to make some from scratch and serve it to everyone I knew—it only took three attempts (the worst looked like watery scrambled egg) until I got it right, and later, a few sips (and some rum!) before my friends stopped looking at me suspiciously over the rims of their glasses. I also had fun watching the shy Japanese guys react when they were caught under the mistletoe (also not a Japanese tradition)! And during a holiday-themed multiple-choice quiz, I let my adult students in on the secret of why Santa is so fat. (No, I had to explain to those who checked off the “wine and turkey” option, Santa does not drink and drive!)

And speaking of alcoholic beverages over the holidays, if—like me—champagne isn’t your cup of … er … tea, you’ll be glad to know that sake is the perfect replacement. It only took moving across the ocean for me to realize I absolutely adored this delicious drink.

My love affair with sake started off on the rocky side. See, the first time I tried sake was in a pre-izakaya Toronto that had very few options when it came to authentic Japanese cuisine. I was at one of those inauthentic “sushi” restaurants and intoxicated by too much wasabi (oh, the nose burn!) when I decided to try some sake. I knew nothing about the drink, so I simply accepted whatever was thrust at me. I now know that the hot sake I was served was likely poor quality, hence the need to heat it up. Which probably explains why my first impression was so bad. That’s right, once upon a time, I thought sake tasted like rubbing alcohol.

These days, I’d say a velvety kiss under the mistletoe would be a more apt comparison. But perhaps my tastebuds are like a fine (rice) wine … they only get better with age.

Happy holidays!


KATHLEEN O’HAGAN

Kathleen spent years living in and travelling around Japan—and blogging about her adventures while she was at it. Now back in Toronto, Kathleen continues to write about her life-changing experience abroad when she can—in between discovering new and delicious Japanese restaurants in the city, working as a copywriter and raising her baby boy.


Illustration by Chieko Watanabe