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.