One of the things that often puzzles foreigners experiencing Christmas in Japan for the first time is the tradition to eat chicken at Christmas. Although a lot of people think of it as a rather old tradition it actually only started in the mid-seventies of the last century. Born as a marketing ploy by the advertising agency hired by Ketucky Fried Chicken, the original marketing campaign was launched on December 1st, 1974. Until then, Christmas had been a culinary blank for the Japanese. There was no particular food waiting to be associated with the event and the time was ripe for something to fill that blank. KFC was still fresh in Japan, having only been around since 1970 when the first restaurant opened in Nagoya (it closed soon, after about a year and the building it was located in was torn down in 2005). Japanese economy was growing rapidly and the people who had until then eaten almost only seafood, rice and vegetables found themselves with the money for the first time ever to introduce a whole new kind of food: chicken (burgers, beef and pork would come later). The slogan of the campaign was simple, “chicken for Christmas” and it got picked up big time, especially by the generation that had been born after war and were eager for a more international lifestyle. When something becomes big in Japan it really becomes big and from the start there were long lines to order your chicken. Standard practice was to make pre-orders a couple of months in advance and pick up on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the way home after work.
These days the tradition lives on more as nostalgia than as the hip thing to do. We have a generation that has grown up and started families of their own having never known a Christmas without chicken, so I do not think the tradition will die out. In the beginning it was associated with KFC and every restaurant in Japan had a special Santa outfit for the Colonel, including this one that I found in Kamakura City, the ancient capital city of Japan, south of Yokohama and Tokyo. These days almost all restaurants, mail order companies and convenience stores do the Christmas Chicken thing, so if the lines are too long at your local KFC you can always try the local convenience store.
Other things to do on Christmas if you are Japanese is to go on dates (in case you are still of dating age) or to eat strawberry and cream cake, if you are too young to date or too old to be bothered. Personally I do not celebrate Christmas so it will be just another day in the office for me!
Since emigrating to Japan I have learned to love the humble Japanese convenience store. These little beacons of light and civilization are everywhere in Japan, from the loneliest Okinawan island to the busiest Tokyo high rise. You can book tickets, pay bills, do your banking, pick up and send packages, buy cell phones, get your beer, order food, buy ready made lunch boxes or lottery tickets or just browse the huge numbers of magazines. Sometimes you can even borrow their restrooms. Some convenience stores have a seating area with free hot water pots. They are open 24 hours a day, usually never close and the staff is amazingly service minded. During the trouble up north in March and Aril 2011 the convenience stores were a lifeline: they had the most advanced distribution network in the country, a perfectly streamlined inventory system and were able to get fresh food into the damaged areas before anyone else. Over a thousand convenience stores had to close due to the earthquake and Seven-Eleven alone saw 41 factories unable to operate. But they had 128 others spread out around the country that could pick up and keep supplies and food streaming into the damaged areas. For me the convenience stores of Japan are heroes, and I have quite a collection of these kind of “portraits” of lonely convenience stores at dusk or sunset.
I took the photos of a Lawson and Three-F store just next to Yuighama beach in Kamakura City, south of Tokyo.
A couple of weeks ago when I visited Kamakura I took these photos of the Yuigahama beach at sunset, after a short rainstorm. The clouds were clearing up and the moon was there, one of my favorite times in one of my favorite places. There were still a few surfers out in the ocean, they must be a hardy bunch!
Yuigahama beach faces south, so it is tricky to photograph during the day. I have so far made many visits to beaches facing south, east and west but I have never spent any longer amount of time on a beach facing north! That is one of the things on my to do list in life. The north coast of Japan is still a big blank for me.
In the autumn or early winter the worst of the summer storms have passed, few people visit the beach and it is cleaner than during spring or summer. I still found one unopened package of Onikoroshi, a supermarket brand of Japanese sake. I am almost addicted to beach combing and whenever I visit this beach I bring a small garbage bag to collect garbage, plastic, pieces of glass and anything that does not belong to the beach. I wish everyone was as manic as me, the beach would be spotless in no time! One short stroll along the beach usually results in a well filled garbage bag that I put in the trash cans near the stairs leading down to the beach. The only thing I never collect is forgotten children’s toys. I always have a secret wish that the child who forgot it will come back and find it again. I wonder if that ever happens in real life?
More photos from my trip to Kamakura the other week. I visited the Kotokuin temple, famous for its 11th century great buddha statue, the big buddha of Kamakura. The city of Kamakura is also in essence the quintessential Japan. It has everything (except rice paddies): the ocean, temples, mountains, shrines, caves, culture, history, shopping, trains, winding old streets and a much needed intensive does of nature.
The Kotokuin temple has two parts, one garden part and one main courtyard where the big buddha is. Most people tend to spend time the big buddha and miss the other parts which might not have anywhere near as much drawing power as the statue. But there are a few things to see, not least (in this season) being the wonderfully red momiji, or Acer Palmatum, or Japanese maple as it is most commonly known in the west. It is the essential autumn tree in Japan. You can really have an autumn fair, an autumn postcard, serve an autumn meal or wear an autumn kimono without making some sort of reference to the momiji. Think of it as the sakura (cherry blossom) of the autumn!
Kotokuin temple is a nice longish walk from Kamakura station (you’ll need a good sense of direction or a map) or a quicker walk from Hase station on the Endoen. It is easy to combine with a short trip to the Yuigahama beach to get a nice view of the Pacific Ocean as well!