Tag Archives: Christmas

Japan Journal #2: Christmas

Soon after our marriage, my wife was posted to New York for four months. I joined her after two and we had a bitterly cold, if not white, Christmas in the Big Apple.

New York is massively multicultural but Christmas was everywhere. A capella carollers in subways; crowds around the Macy’s window displays; the Empire State building lit up in green and red; the bell-ringing Santa Claus outside stores raising money for charity; the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree; ice-skating in Central Park. Back in our apartment we put on a CD of Australian artists singing yuletide songs and, as Paul Kelly’s brilliant How to Make Gravy spoke of isolation and wishes, the homesickness kicked in and tears rolled down my cheeks.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a Christmas I loved and will never forget. We spent the day doing a bicycle tour of Central Park, guided by an off-duty New York fireman. Dinner was shared with visiting family and friends and we made the most of the fact that Manhattan doesn’t slip into an overfed slumber, like many Aussie cities, on December 25.

In 2013 we spent Christmas day in Tokyo. The Christmas story I embrace centres on family and kindness and a reason to believe in good things. I was confident those ingredients would travel with us whatever we were doing, wherever we found ourselves. Needless to say, Tokyo still managed to surprise me.

In Tokyo, Christmas was very much an anomalous, Santa-centric celebration, mainly promoted by retailers. On Christmas Eve I trudged over to our local supermarket (dubbed the ‘Happy Carrot’ by the Little Monkey) and was hugely amused to find the staff removing all traces of Christmas decorations before the day had even arrived. They were replacing them with New Year wreaths and gifts ready for Japan’s main holiday – a three-day break when when shrines and temples around the nation overflow with people making wishes for the future and setting things right with the past. The cranky Happy Carrot manager could clearly do without Santa in such proximity to January 1.

Inner Tokyo shines with pulsating neon the colours of the Great Barrier Reef. Major retail superstores were bedecked with Christmas decorations but the off-beat English captions and concepts kept us grinning like loons. At one of the prestigious Shinjuku stores, the proud window display theme was, ‘Have a heart of Santa Claus!’ Mmmm, chewy.

Santa hats were everywhere. Indeed, we were inspired to collect photos of the weirdest items we could find in a Santa costume. I give you Santa Darth Vader, Santa sumo, Santa Hello Kitty, Santa Buzz Lightyear, Santa aliens, Santa duck, Santa penguin, Santa Totoro and a fibreglass golden retriever wearing a Christmas tree helmet. My personal favourite was a white Christmas tree decorated with blue baubles, tinsel and … fibreglass rashers of bacon.

Posses of giggling Harajuku girls shivered in Santa inspired mini-dresses throughout the city. Perfumed store touts in knee-high faux-fur boots and Santa skirts beckoned us into their fluorescent lairs. Christmas muzak played anywhere a loudspeaker was available. (When we ventured outside Tokyo to a ski resort toboggan run, chipmunky versions of Jingle Bells and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer were on a permanent looping mix tape with Happy Birthday, Frere Jacques and various nursery rhymes. Globalisation squeaked large.)

Knowing that a Japanese Christmas was unlikely to feel particularly Christmassy, we’d taken steps to make the day memorable. We pre-booked tickets to the Studio Ghibli Museum that is the spiritual home of the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki and his team. Two subway trains and a decent walk and we were greeted by Totoro in a ticket booth (and some extra officious security staff.)

One of the pitfalls of being a tourist on a tight budget and taut calendar is the tendency to tick boxes – seen it, seen it, what’s next? I plead guilty to approaching the museum this way, at least for the first hour. We stood in line for an exclusive short film screening, a delectable love story about a spider and a water strider. I rushed to see the rooftop robot from Laputa – Castle in the Sky (pictured in my previous post) and the cat bus from My Friend Totoro. I found the museum crowded, cluttered and difficult to navigate. Passageways and rooms had an Escher-like quality; I couldn’t retrace my steps anywhere easily.

Then I slowed down. I started to understand this was a place not to tick boxes or time-slot like Tokyo Disney. Getting lost and then drifting like a forest spirit was the whole idea. I found rooms I had bustled by unseeing, including a reproduction of Mr Miyazaki’s excellent studio. I discovered nooks and details designed to slow the heart rate and revive the goshness in small things. Like claymation animators, we were supposed to see the space between movements, the blink and the wonder.

We ended up staying until well after dark, drinking hot ginger beer in the Straw Hat cafe. The kids were somewhat underwhelmed, visiting the day after traversing acres of Disneyland. I wasn’t. The Studio Ghibli method and message still resonate. I can’t think of a better place to spend a Tokyo Christmas.

Totoro greets guests at the Studio Ghibli Museum.
Totoro greets guests at the Studio Ghibli Museum.
Add flavour to your Christmas decorations!
Add flavour to your Christmas decorations!

Catering

Her hands dart over phalanxes of sushi rolls. A dash more mayo here, a hint of wasabi there. Can’t be seen to be skimping on the salmon. Wouldn’t want to give that shrew Margot something else to complain about.

She sighs. Offers a prayer to the culinary gods that this batch of nori sheets holds firm. Once, back when she was starting out, she’d experimented with one of the cheaper brands. Never again. The rolls all split or dissolved between her kitchen and the venue. She’d opened the van to unload the platters and discovered outcrops of crabmeat and cucumber twigs awash in a tsunami of rice. She had to get back in the van and pay top dollar for every piece of sushi within a 10km radius. Better to swallow a loss on the job than lose the client forever.

Sometimes she wonders if she’d be better off losing Margot’s business. Office micro-manager to a major insurance firm, Margot has a bone to pick with every event from the smallest boardroom morning tea to the staff Christmas party. Pastries slightly crumbly? Splinter of shell in a curried egg sandwich? Whatever the menu, she can guarantee Margot will find fault and follow up with a post-event email cataloguing the “issues”. All excuses for Margot to haggle over the price for their next function, of course.

She dreamed about Margot recently. It was a caterer’s fantasy, the creation of a unique French stick of garlic bread. She saw herself deliberately not cutting the bread deep enough, lathering garlic butter into the shallow incisions, twisting the stick into a corkscrew and squeezing it carefully into a basket. Genius.

In the dream, Margot was wearing a cream gown. Unable to resist meddling in the kitchen, Margot protruded a tentacle to sample the garlic bread. When the slice wouldn’t come out easily, she tugged on it, just enough. The coiled bread sprung out like a serpent, leaving Margot swathed in grease and flecks of chive. The caterer had woken up smiling.

Now she stands alert in the kitchen, ready to unwrap desserts on Margot’s prompt. There are mini-Christmas puddings, rum-balls, pavlovas and trifles. She busies herself adjusting decorative sprigs of holly.

In the old days, she used to help the wait staff change the courses over but she soon learned Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties were best avoided. Staying busy in the kitchen meant missing the festive exuberance of lagered-up men who gaze down her shirt as they grope for hors d’oeuvres and more. And shrill women who become increasingly critical of her food, her appearance, her breeding, with every champagne flute.

She wanders across to the kitchen door and squints through the galley window. Margot normally works the room like a general, checking all the troops are sated and of sound morale. Today Margot is away in a dim corner, her hand on the forearm of the senior accountant, a man with thinning hair and a paunch. He’s shaking his head, sullen. Looking anywhere but in Margot’s eyes.

The caterer hopes they’re not discussing her invoice.

She heads back to the benches to fiddle with a fruit platter, killing time before Margot’s cue. As she does, the door swings behind her.

It’s Margot, stripped of her usual bluster and bustle. Margot, sobbing and wiping her knuckles across her eyes, her make-up smeared. Margot on the retreat.

The caterer waits, then utters a tentative, “Are you OK? Can I get you something?”
Margot barks back, “Serve the desserts. Do whatever you bloody like…” And then folds onto the bench top, her head in her arms.

The caterer considers the swathes of cling wrap in front of her, the job still to be done. It can all wait. She steps across to her client, putting her arm around Margot’s shaking shoulders.
“He told me he’d leave her,” Margot sniffles. “That this would be our first Christmas … together. Oh God. Why … did I believe him?”

The caterer knows there’s nothing that will garnish this moment, no chocolate coating. She whispers, “You know what? It’s only nine days until a new year begins.”

She runs

She runs. More than a shuffle. Less than a sprint.
Steady. That’s what her father would have called her pace.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” he used to say, always with the imputation that she was doing things wrong. Rushing.
It became the quest of her childhood, to steadily win his affection.

She runs. Away from her apathetic, underachieving children. Away from her husband with his grins ground out of him.
Her father used to smile at her sister. Chuckle even. There was never any question as to his favourite daughter.
He preferred the hurdler, not the middle distance runner.
Steady didn’t seem to count.

She runs. Past houses and gardens. Along the bland streets where she lives.
Past friendships that faltered. Teachers who didn’t bring out the best in her kids. Injustices snagged on picket fences.
One foot, then the other, her breathing a mantra repelling all but fleeting thoughts.
Must write a letter to Council about how late those people leave their Christmas lights flickering.

She runs. Pushes through darkness and pain. Uses the anger to power each stride.
Running has changed her body, slashed two dress sizes from her hips, carved away her chest.
It’s put steel in her glutes and calves, cortisone in one traitorous knee.
She presses on, hungry for forward movement. Flight now, fight later.

She ran. Submitted an entry form online. Committed herself to a date, seeking run rather than fun.
Arrived early and held her space at the start line, twitchy and impatient. Survived the melee at the gun, staying left and low.
Maintained a steady pace for 10km then surged, letting her furies drive her home.
Broke the ribbon, depleted but triumphant. Not second best.

Leaking lists

Newspaper editors around Australia must be besides themselves with joy that the WikiLeaks story has broken during the silly season when news can be hard to come by. We do have the Poms belting us black and blue at cricket but that can only fill so many pages. Other perennial summer yarns include the road toll (tick) and wild weather (tick, tick, tick). In the bygone era of aggro industrial relations you could usually count on a beer and/or postal strike to liven up the pre-Christmas period, too.

Without such staples, newspapers, magazines and current affairs shows fill up with Top 10s and Best Ofs. Many blogs do, too.

Before I conducted my 2010 autopsy, I delved a little to see what influences have lingered. Here are the 2009 and 2008 entries. Hey, at least I can show I listened to Angus & Julia Stone before they became mainstream cool.

Ms Adele at Persnickety Snark suggested 11 Top 5s to countdown to 2011 but I’m going to have to settle for this mutated selection from her list, because I clearly haven’t read as quickly or widely:

5 Great Covers: Kirsty Murray’s India Dark, Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, Karen Tayleur’s Six and, dare I say, my Five Parts Dead (thanks to Chong at Text Publishing).

5 Great Series: Based on reading these with my son, Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant Series, Sandy Fussell’s Samurai Kids series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. Based on my own reading of the first book in the series – Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Joseph Delaney’s The Spook’s Apprentice.

5 Great Re-Reads (books you’ve LOVED so much you went back for more): These aren’t YA fiction but this year I found myself re-reading Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Dav Pilkey’s The Dumb Bunnies and lots of Dr Seuss with my daughter. I am planning to re-read Markus Zusak’s The Messenger real soon, though.

Most Anticipated (2011 titles): Sheesh, I’m still working my way through a backlog of titles. Books I can’t wait to consume come from 2010 and even further back and include Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, Scot Gardner’s Happy As Larry, Kirsty Murray’s India Dark, Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Lian Hearn’s Heaven’s Net is Wide, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Kate Constable & Penni Russon’s Dear Swoozie, Fiona Wood’s Six Impossible Things, Paul Kelly’s How To Make Gravy and Kevin Keefe’s Paddy’s Road: Life Stories of Patrick Dodson. Sally Rippin’s Angel Creek is a genuine 2011 title I’m keen to read.

But that’s just the tip of the bedside table stack. One of the apps on the iPad that makes me feel 11 all over again is the ComiXology store where I have already downloaded enough graphic novels to keep me going until next summer.

5 Great YA Bloggers
Authors – Cath Crowley, Kate Constable, Kirsty Murray, Penni Russon, Simmone Howell. Passionate book people – Book Gryffin, InkCrush, Miffy, Persnickety Snark, ReadPlus. There are countless others – but these snare me most frequently.

5 Books I Thoroughly Enjoyed in 2010 (but could have been published any time): Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Joel Deane’s The Norseman’s Song and Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful.

The funniest thing I’ve read all year was a chapter in Rene Goscinny’s Nicholas about a teacher doing yard duty at a boys’ school after several days of wet-day timetable. Absolute gold.

Favourite Films from 2010: Up In The Air, The Social Network, Animal Kingdom, Toy Story 3, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Runners up: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, The Hurt Locker, HP7, Inception.)

On Regular Rotation in 2010: Clare Bowditch, The Jezabels, Angus & Julia Stone, Arcade Fire, Whitley, Ben Folds and (still) Bon Iver.

On The Idiot Box: This year I bought a box set of The Wire and became a wirehead whenever free-to-air failed to grab me. Great stuff.

One show that entertained, upset, challenged and inspired me was The United States of Tara. The most recent series of Skins faltered somewhat but I’m still stunned it’s getting re-made in the US. Cue wail of anguish. Nooooooooo! Australian Story is consistently good. Channel 9 desecrated Top Gear.

Thanks list: In a year when I’ve had a new book released, I am acutely aware of the support I need from booksellers, reviewers, Text Publishing, speakers’ agency Booked Out, teachers, librarians, fellow authors, friends and family. Thank you all for being in my corner. I appreciate it.

Have a safe, jolly Christmas and may 2011 see your dreams come to fruition.

UPDATE: Whoops, I’ve added some titles that slipped my foggy mind first time around. And FYI, here’s the New York Times list of Notable Children’s Books of 2010.