Now that the holidays have slowed to a gradual stop, I once again find time to sit and write. Whether on this or that hemisphere of the earth, the holiday season is a busy one. I had school right up to December 22, but all of my classmates actually had their last day on the 24th (yes, Christmas Eve!) but I was scheduled to be on the Shinkansen to Sendai by then.
The 23rd is a national holiday, the emperor’s birthday if I remember correctly. My host mother took advantage of the day to throw a Christmas party with some of my host family’s relatives. We spent all day preparing food and cleaning the house to perfection. My host sister and I decorated the classic Japanese Christmas dessert: a sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries. Other dishes for the evening included macaroni salad, sliced roast beef to be dipped in soy sauce, mashed potatoes, and crackers with a choice of toppings.
The main dish was fried chicken. As in, Kentucky Fried Chicken. We actually ordered ours from a different chain restaurant, but yes, there are many Japanese families that order KFC for the centerpiece of their Christmas dinner. Our guests arrived, bringing with them a homemade quiche.
We ate our dinner (with my host mom offering the boys rice — some here say a meal isn’t an actual meal without rice), and then proceeded to play some games, number and word games. Next came our favorite part: presents! My host sister and brother, their cousin, and I all gave each other gifts. The cake was sliced, and the party ended by 9:00 p.m.; we all had an early start in the morning, everyone but me with their jobs and schools to go to. Christmas Eve is not often a day off over here.
As for me, I headed off on a trip to Sendai, a city in northern Japan. It was for an English camp for Japanese students ranging in age from eight to sixteen years of age. I was going as something of an assistant. I had worried at first about leaving my host family over Christmas, but soon found they wouldn’t be missing me. My host brother had basketball practice, my host sister had a piano lesson. A clear example of the gap between Western and Eastern Christmas.
The Shinkansen ride was interesting. The general atmosphere inside was similar to that of a plane, but without the long waits to lift-off, the noise, and the turbulence. We moved at a terrifying speed, but so smoothly I hardly felt it.
The institute we stayed at for the English camp was government-owned. It was something of a nature-oriented recreational center, with a gym, classrooms, cafeteria, and many identical rooms for us to sleep in. Each room had eight pairs of bunk beds, and since I had only six roommates, it was very spacious. Every morning and evening of the trip (which was three nights, four days) we gathered in the gym for an opening/closing ceremony, where the Japanese flag was raised or lowered to the music of the national anthem. This was a required ceremony, because the building was property of the government’s.
Unlike my host city of Yokohama, it can get quite cold in northern Japan, cold enough for snow. The timing of our arrival was actually perfect; no snow on the ground the day we came, but thirty centimeters on Christmas morning. Most of the trip was spent in the classrooms doing various English-based activities. There were a couple notable exceptions. Christmas morning we went outside to a workshop, where we made signs out of charred wood. The process was pretty simple: we started fires in rusty metal boxes. After letting the flames burn for a bit, we took simple plates of normal white wood in the grasp of a pair of metal tongs, and held our planks over the fire. It was exactly like roasting marshmallows. When our wood was charred to a satisfying black, we polished them with steel brushes and rags. These were decorated with paint.
That afternoon, we took advantage of the snow and went sledding. The snow never completely stopped the entire span of our stay. By the time we left there was an accumulation of 70 centimeters.
The next day we prepared for the Candle Night, a little event we would hold that evening. All the students broke into groups, and we made little presentations, performances, or games. I ended up being recruited to play the role of Harry Potter, and ran around with a broom between my legs (my ‘Nimbus 2011,’ as the event coordinator called it) chasing an invisible Snitch.
Having somehow survived that experience, I made it to the last day, where we went home just as the sun peeked out over the white world.
Without a doubt, it was a white Christmas in a winter wonderland.