Nothing says Christmas like ending up in a love hotel dressed as an elf
As the holiday season approaches and the end of the apocalyptically ambitious 2020 finally draws to a close, many people around the world will be celebrating differently from normal, or perhaps not celebrating at all. For the first time in my life, I will not be in my home country, the UK, but in Japan.
I have lived in Tokyo for more than six years and I adore it. Yet the prospect of not waking up on Christmas Day to damp grey British weather, trudging through the mud on a family walk, and gorging on roast beef until in a near-comatose state is undoubtedly going to feel strange.
Japan doesn’t really get Christmas and it’s not even a holiday. Instead of family time, young couples tend to hold a date night, and roast turkey is usurped by Christmas KFC. It’s also unashamedly a marketing opportunity for stores to switch out the Halloween decorations and further abuse the English language.
But Japan has been my adopted home for six years, and there was no way I was going to be spending Christmas moping around. I was going to go the extra mile like a supercharged Santa on Christmas Eve. Moreover, there are some genuinely wonderful things to do in winter in Tokyo, and I decided to embrace everything as much as I could.
My challenge: to celebrate the most “Japanese” Christmas I could in just 24 hours.
And that is how I ended up in a love hotel dressed as an elf.
Wear a Christmas Costume
To be upfront, a costume is definitely not a necessary part of celebrating Christmas in Japan. However, Japan is the king of cosplay and it’s not uncommon to see a mascot traipsing around town, apparently waving cheerfully but likely with a sweaty uncomfortable person obscured inside.
If I was going to celebrate Christmas, I was going to dress up for the occasion. A casual perusal of the Amazon website, a couple of rash decisions and 48 hours later, and I was standing in front of my mirror dressed as an elf.
This truly was a “What in Santa Claus’ name have I done?” moment, as evinced by the mild horror emanating from my eyes. This had seemed like such a good idea. But now I was about to head out into Tokyo as an elf… to have as much fun as possible. The irony was not lost on me.
Find the Least Festive “Christmas” Tree
There are plenty of ordinary Christmas trees and decorations around Tokyo, but, every so often, you will come across a completely incongruous attempt to get into the spirit of the season. So behold this glowing creation of orbs.
This was made by teamLab, “an art collective, interdisciplinary group of ultratechnologists” behind teamLab Borderless, an interactive, immersive art installation in Odaiba that became one of the hottest openings of 2019.
Check Out: All-You-Can-See ODAIBA CHALLENGE
My initial cynicism towards their tower of glowing balls was due to the fact that there is nothing remotely festive about the installation, unless you count a conical shape as the epitome of Yule, but I ended up reluctantly impressed when seeing the art in person. The orbs glow and fade into different colours in a way that is subtly mesmerising.
Best of all, it’s located in a shopping centre that embodies the Japanese romantic imagination of Europe. VenusFort is apparently designed to resemble a medieval European village, replete with a ceiling painted into a blue sky and Rome’s Mouth of Truth accompanied by an anime girl.
Find a Christmas Date
“Hey girl! So good to see you the other day! This is a little strange but…will you come to a love hotel with me?’
It was one of the more awkward messages I’ve sent to a friend. Christmas Eve is designated as a romantic day in Japan with love hotels experiencing one of their busiest nights of the year. Where this association comes from is not entirely clear, but one theory is that a popular 1990s TV drama titled “Christmas Eve,” which followed the love lives of several couples, was what helped to cement the date as a Japanese Valentine’s Day.
Being single, 32 years old, and living alone in a Tokyo shoebox apartment, I was determined not to have a Bridget Jones’ meltdown, crying into my sixth tub of ice cream. “Think of Santa! This isn’t a romantic day!” I told myself and shuddered.
However, I still needed a date for the challenge, so I recruited amazing friend and fellow Tokyo Challenge writer Zoria Petkoska. As someone not opposed to decorating things or herself, and being more than comfortable with wandering the city after dark, she would be a great accomplice.
She pulled out the stops and came dressed as a Christmas tree. Together, in our hastily cobbled together costumes, we were perfect; we were a triumph of friendship — the slightly mad kind.
Festive spirits high, we set off on our faux Christmas date.
Brighten Things up with Illuminations
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of winter in Japan, literally brightening the darkness, are the illuminations. These have grown increasingly popular and increasingly spectacular in recent years, making them good spots for family outings as well as obvious choices for dates.
I had settled on Midtown Illuminations for the night’s outing. This was partly due to my desire to seek out bizarrely non-Christmassy installations, such as multicoloured light-up stepping stones, which were irresistibly fun anyway. However, there was also a rather splendid Christmas tree decorated with numbers from 1 to 25 like a giant advent calendar, and an impressive igloo light show. Everything warranted ample admiration and, of course, multiple photos.
Eat Christmas Sweets
Move over mince pies. Christmas in Japan is all about strawberry shortcake. Whereas back home in the UK, strawberries are to be enjoyed in the summer, perhaps while watching Wimbledon, in Japan they are definitely a winter fruit.
The origins of strawberry shortcake as a Christmas cake can be traced back to the association of American culture with prosperity post-World War II. Japan fell on hard times immediately after the war, but in the 1950s, growing wealth enabled people to buy household electronics such as refrigerators, and afford hitherto luxurious items such as butter, milk and sugar. Thus, an American-inspired Christmas cake was born, which ironically was a very un-American Christmas item indeed.
For my Christmas date night, however, I had a plan to boldly stride even further into the territory of cultural differences. In the UK, ice cream all but vanishes in the winter, but in Japan, seasonal flavours abound and sales continue, even if it’s three degrees Celsius outside. What’s more, a new trend has emerged in one of Japan’s most northern cities, Sapporo: eating parfait has become a late-night — and even post-drinking — food. These have evolved into elegant parfait parlours offering Instagrammable creations until 1 a.m. or later to delight the predominantly female clientele.
For my purposes, I had discovered something almost too good to be true: Christmas parfaits. This was why at around 8 p.m., Zoria and I arrived at the Nighttime Parfait Speciality Store Momobukuro, ready for a sugar fix.
The young member of staff was delighted by my “cute” elf costume and she immediately ushered us to a table at the back, where we perused the menu. The parfaits can be ordered as a set with an alcoholic drink. I casually ordered a whisky on the rocks, mainly because I thought it was hilariously incongruous. I was a cheeky elf.
It took quite some time for our picture-perfect parfaits to be produced but we understood once they arrived — one raspberry-inspired “Merry Reindeer,” which contained delectable pistachio cream, and one “Present,” which nodded heavily to the Japanese Christmas cake with some fresh strawberries and cream.
Somehow, after watching Christmas lights, and now eating spectacular, sparkly desserts, it really did feel like Christmas of sorts. Or was that just the whisky talking?
Remember: Kentucky (Fried Chicken) Is Christmas
Sprinting through a station while dressed as an elf is a mildly bemusing experience; panicking in the name of fast-food festive fun is even more so. As our Instagrammable parfaits had delayed us, KFC stores had been merrily closing up shop for the day. We found ourselves with less than 20 minutes to make it to the only store nearby that was still open.
There was no compromising; KFC is an indispensable part of a “Japanese” Christmas, due to a 1974 campaign, which merely said “Kentucky for Christmas.” If you’re waiting for the next bit of the story, that’s essentially all there is to say — the outrageously self-confident campaign worked, although though the Colonel’s uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus when dressed in red undoubtedly helped.
KFC sales continue boom at Christmas, with special menus selling out weeks in advance. This year, a “premium roast chicken” is on sale for a hefty 5,890 yen ($57).
We weren’t eating KFC close enough to Christmas Day, and certainly hadn’t the foresight to reserve Christmas buckets last month (many stores have already sold out), so we found ourselves buying the last piece of KFC original chicken at our nearest store, five minutes before closing time. I held my greasy conquest aloft like a trophy.
Check in to a Love Hotel
This Christmas Elf was on a mission. Admittedly, finding a love hotel was the trickiest part of the challenge, as I wasn’t entirely sure where to start looking. Love hotels are usually frequented by couples, who pay for a “rest” — a euphemism for renting a room for just a few hours — or a “stay,” which allows overnight usage. They are often themed with bizarre and tacky decor, yet sometimes offer plush beds and better bathroom facilities than other hotels at a similar price point. I began a search for one that was salubrious yet ridiculous.
I discovered Bali An Hotel & Resort, a chain of Bali-themed love hotels that appeal to many kinds of guests, including tourists, due to their spacious rooms and good facilities for the price. Best of all, they offer a special plan for joshikai — girls’ parties! Before you get too excited imagining what that might entail, allow me to hastily inform you that it’s essentially a sleepover party for girls (well, for women aged 18+) who get to pamper themselves, eat sweets, drink alcohol, take relaxing baths and generally giggle and share girly gossip.
I had initially debated whether to go alone and take along a handy boyfriend pillow for company. Then, I remembered this was supposed to be fun. Festive fun. This would be too tragic even for me, and I genuinely love mocking myself. So I must again express my gratitude to Zoria, who accompanied me, in her full Christmas Tree Costume glory, to Bali An Kinshicho, which seemed to offer the most luxuriously decked out rooms. We were not disappointed.
This was the culmination of my Japanese Christmas; I was going to own it and do it my way. I had ordered balloons. I was dressed as an elf. And, yes, I was going to jump all over the king size bed like a kid that ate too many sweets.
Once we’d got over the excitement of the over-the-top room with fancy furnishings, we enjoyed a welcome drink and reheated the KFC in the handy microwave (how did they know?!). Then, we called reception and asked for our “honey toast,” which was included in the plan. I had requested that it come with a special festive message and the staff had kindly obliged.
“Honey toast” is a dessert popular among young people for birthdays. It comprises a loaf of sweet bread drizzled in honey and stuffed with ice cream and cream. In all honesty, it seems to be a dessert more suited to Instagram that ingesting; ours was so lethally sweet that we could only take one bite each.
Our Japanese Christmas was drawing to a close and we were winding down for the night. Yet there was one last experience to complete our joshikai — it was time to run a bath and sprinkle in flowers, presumably to conjure dreams of Bali. However, I got more carried away trying to make a Santa Claus beard out of bubbles. It was supposed to be Christmas Eve after all.
3 Ways to Own Your Japanese Christmas
The next morning, while relaxing in the steaming hot outdoor bath, I reflected that this was a very good way indeed to wake up after a Japanese Christmas. The challenge had undoubtedly been a success, and I attributed this to three crucial factors.
Here are my top tips on how to celebrate a Japanese Christmas:
- Do ridiculously fun things, like jumping on a bed with balloons while dressed as an elf (I admit, personal preferences are important here – dressing as reindeers is also encouraged). Taking the occasion or yourself seriously is forbidden.
- Find a great “date” who shares the same interests as you and is prepared to embrace maximum “Christmas” silliness.
- Build your best Japanese Christmas; don’t try to imitate your usual Christmas.
My Japanese Christmas was a wonderful experience because I set off with a sense of adventure, excellent company, and no intention to replicate my usual British Christmas. This was about building a bold new experience, and perhaps the first steps to a new tradition.
After all, Christmas is just another human invention. This year — as well as next — we can reinvent it whenever and however and wherever we like.