Tag Archives: New York

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!

Places that talk

Book reviewers sometimes talk about how a particular tome successfully captured “a sense of place” by evoking the sights, sounds and smells of a location. For me, “a sense of place” has another meaning.

Sometimes I’ll visit a new destination (or spend new time at an old one) and my story radar will be triggered, big time. Tasmania’s Port Arthur is one place where I can just about feel the past mingling with the present. The Kangaroo Island setting for my next book, is another such place. The moment I walked in the door of our holiday cottage, I had a sense that a story was brewing.

A friend recently referred me to a website, Opacity that really captures a sense of place in an eery fashion. I confess I’m a sucker for photographing decrepit buildings, grimy statuary and gnarled tree trunks… but not if it means breaking and entering or risking life and limb. As a kid, curiosity saw me explore numerous dangerous sites- old mines, empty buildings and even the stormwater tunnels under a Melbourne suburb. As an adult, I’m less intrepid… or maybe more conscious of risk and less willing to push my luck.

I took the Fallen Angels shot below (click for full size) somewhere in New York. I like it because the cherubs’ stained faces are sulky and sinister – like they’ve changed teams. It makes me wonder what they did to fall from grace. Imagine having them over your doorway. What vibe would they bring to your building? What would they get up to when you’re not looking?

Fallen Angels
Fallen Angels

Gravy and tears

Back in 1997 I spent Christmas in New York, a city with a real festive magic to it. There was the Empire State building lit up in red and green, the Macy’s decorations, a cappella carolers in subway stations, clumps of dirty grey snow in gutters… and me, homesick as all get out.

In our tiny apartment I put on a CD of Australian artists singing Christmas songs. When the Paul Kelly track below came on, I cried. My wife did too. It is a superb piece of storytelling and I still shiver when I hear it.

Christmas can be a time when we grieve for absent family and friends and regret moments gone by. This song says all that and more.

I wish all my readers, friends and family a Christmas that brings peace of mind and a pause from the crazy pace of life. Thanks for listening to me vent and ramble throughout 2009. I’m going to stop by the side of the Thunder Road for a while and listen to the waves.