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Letters from Tokyo by Roland Kelts, December - January: When the Colonel is a Claus

I rode out my first Christmas in Japan alone, far from the US mania of gifting and parties and family. I thought it would be ideal. Sequestered in my narrow danchi apartment with time to write, read, reflect and phone home through the operators at KDDI—which sometimes felt like risking collect calls from prison: Would my family accept the charges?

Through my front door I had an unobstructed view of the Yodogawa River snaking through north Osaka. From my balcony, the Umeda skyline stretching south. I’d just stare at both until it was over.

Instead I found myself sitting cross-legged on tatami watching a line of chorus girls in mini-skirts on my tiny TV. The Rockettes they were not, but they high-kicked a storm and flashed a lot of leg, and I stared at the jump-cuts with creeping loneliness. The Irish whiskey I’d been gifted by a neighbor didn’t help.

It was Christmas Eve in Japan. Time for romance, dinner dates, maybe more. But I’d missed that memo.

I’ve come a long way since: 250 miles northeast to central Tokyo. My holiday flights to the US have tapered off and we have VoIP and Zoom to bridge the distance for less than pennies. To me, Christmas now happens in Japan, with convenience store jingles, KFC promos, illuminations and gently romantic TV come-ons. I’ve come to love a displacement that now feels normal: At the end and beginning of each year, Tokyo and New York trade temperaments.

On and after Christmas, New York goes quasi-dormant for days. City dwellers with family elsewhere leave town while natives snooze through dark afternoons. Overnight, the snow falling through lamplight shafts becomes minefields of curbside mush.

But Christmas in Tokyo sees bars and restaurants overstuffed and hotels booked, many of them short-stay “Love Hotels.” The holiday hits amid year-end party (bonnenkai) season so reveling has plenty of rationale. Until December 26th, Tokyo’s illuminated pedestrian walkways and avenues glisten with LEDs—especially notable this year because people were back to take them in.

The cities switch-hit for the New Year: New York goes wild, Tokyo gets sleepy.

Tourism to Japan doubled this past November, and by December, when academics and kids started vacationing, it felt like everyone was here, back-and-forthing mainly between Tokyo and Kyoto and a few points in between (Kamakura and the newly opened Ghibli Park in Aichi topped lists).

Even in the warrens of Shinjuku’s cheeky Golden Gai, where some bars have a reputation for being exclusive and standoffish toward outsiders, multi-lingual signage beckoned passersby to take a seat, whatever their nationality.

“We invite anyone who can drink!” one owner boasted to me, clearly sampling his own wares.

Even more noticeable was the return of domestic tourists to Tokyo’s streets, most of them masked but less tentative, shopping, dining out, and getting selfies with those LEDs. This despite the fact that case counts were rising in December, and a couple of close friends were among the stricken.

We decided to get out of town and decamp to our usual onsen in Izu, where domestic tourists were definitely not. In fact, the town felt deserted, our inn hosting only a couple of other couples and, for one night, a small family. On the main street through town, straggly Christmas lights were strung up over the front door of a karaoke pub, but usually vibrant pachinko parlors and some of the smaller local restaurants were shuttered.

Walking down the now darker sidewalk at night, it was hard to imagine how any of those venues survived two-plus years of pandemic.

Nearby, at the peak of Mount Katsuragi, Japanese was the minority language. Instead, visitors from other parts of Asia took in the pristine view of Mount Fuji sloping into Suruga Bay, hiked through the forest and lounged at the footbath and immaculate café. Like our inn, the park and its facilities had clearly been upgraded over the downtime, and like Golden Gai, it now boasted multilingual signs and staff speaking English, or at least trying to, and looked brighter, cleaner, spruced up. After our desultory nighttime strolls through town, such revamps were encouraging.

For Christmas itself we roasted a whole chicken sourced from Kagoshima. It was excellent. Once upon a time it was impossible to find turkey in Tokyo, according to KFC lore, hence the fried chicken bonanza. But now you can easily find heaps of frozen turkey at any of the specialty foreign food shops in the city.

Problem is: you need to have an oven big enough for the bird, and enough people on hand to consume it.

A juicy, seasoned roast chicken or Cornish game hen has become my preferred Christmas substitute, and sides like stuffing, potatoes, vegetables and cranberry sauce are also easy to buy seasonally in Tokyo. Besides which, in Japan, the real feast begins just a week later for the New Year’s celebration, a string of days when soba noodles, pre-prepped delicacies (osechi ryori), mochi rice cakes, sweet beans, roast beef and crab legs fill the bill. There isn't any room for leftover turkey sandwiches.

2023 is the Year of the Rabbit, but the unsurprising news this January is that Japan is not behaving bunny-ish, at least not procreatively. Another record-low birth rate prompted otherwise bland and reserved PM Kishida to warn that the nation could cease to function without more babies. Childless myself, I sympathize with young parents even more now that inflation has seeped into my local supermarket. While Tokyo remains a bargain compared to US cities like New York and San Francisco, prices here have spiked over the past few months, especially for fruit, vegetables and other fresh goods, and so-called ‘shrinkflation’ has arrived despite retailer reluctance: four pieces of sushi now cost ¥100 more than six pieces did in October. The pinch is minor for people like me, but when I see mothers in the checkout aisle watching the register with widening eyes and narrowing brows, I worry for them.

After one of the sunniest, mildest winters I’ve ever had in Tokyo, perfect walking weather, temperatures tanked at the end of January. Like a fool, I'm now flying to frigid New York for a film shoot, trading temperaments and temperatures at one of the coldest times of the year. But at least I won't be alone.

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