Holiday Memories from Japan

(Fall 2004 Issue)

Living in Japan gave us some unique challenges during our favorite holidays.  But we know that’s also what brings the best out of us. Below are some of the ways your fellow alums celebrated the traditional holidays in Japan.

Lyle Sylvander
I had Thanksgiving at the ambassador’s residence with about 100 other JETS from the Tokyo area. Ambassador Howard Baker, former Senator from Tennessee and Chief of Staff under Reagan, and his wife Nancy Kasslebaum who was a former Senator from Kansas, greeted us as we entered the door.  It was a real Thanksgiving feast with a choice of Turkey, Roast Beef, Ham – all layed out in display style. After dinner, we got to mingle with the ambasador and his wife as well as talk with numerous marines who were also invited. The ambassador and his wife were both very down to Earth.  We could also see the room where the famous picture of MacArthur and Hirohito was taken.


Nicole Hebert
Saga Ken 1998-2000
My most memorable holiday had to be Thanksgiving. A group of us from AJET decided to put together a Thanksgiving Dinner just for us- the gaijin. We ordered food about a month in advance from that foreign food shop in Kobe…or was it Osaka?? Surely you know what I’m talking about. It was an ordeal to find a place in my city that would hold us all for some reason that had a working kitchen and tatami room available. Eventually, a JET in another town found one through her Board of Ed. We had it all planned out, how much was needed for the lot of us and it looked like had enough food.  Although it was two days after the real holiday, we were all dying for a real turkey with all the trimmings. The turkey was well on it’s way in the oven brought in specially brought by one member and we all chipped in and cooked for hours. Sure enough, two members of that town’s Board of Ed showed up uninvited while we were cooking and asked if they could take home some turkey because they’ve never had any!! It was quite surprising not to mention embarrassing because we only had enough for the people involved, and the town’s JET was not having it. She told them sorry, that it was all accounted for, and turned them away.  Needless to say, I don’t think she was approved for much nenkyu that year!


Karen Sumberg
My first year in Kochi, I had the privilege of working with a Japanese Teacher of English who lacked a backbone and chose not to support me in times of classroom conflict.  This presented a problem since, at this point, my Japanese was non-functional at best.  It did work to my advantage in some ways, I planned all the lessons and got to do what I wanted.  Ibuki-sensei was a bright, but insecure Japanese woman with a serious Korean fetish and boyfriend.  She was also a proud Christian.  When I arrived at school one day, I found a man at the gate passing out copies of the Bible to students and faculty alike.  Ibuki-sensei had one of the gleaming new books on her desk and told me that it helped her to deal with students who were being rude to her (which seemed to be all of them with the exception of three girls on her table tennis team).

In early December, with Christmas fast approaching, Ibuki turned to me one day and asked me to do a lesson on Christmas.  “Christmas in America?”  I asked.  “No, the story of Christmas and then, maybe some points on how you celebrate Christmas in America,” she responded.  “Well,” I suggested, “you should probably do the lesson on the story of Christmas since you are Christian and I am not.”  “Ummm, maybe, you would be better at the story of Christmas because my sect does not celebrate Christmas on the 25th.  We are not sure that is the actual day that Christ was born,” Ibuki-sensei replied.  I was trying to close my mouth from shock, but it seemed dead-set on staying open.  I fully acknowledge that December 25 is most likely not the exact day of Jesus’ birth, but it is accepted that the 25 is the day the coming is celebrated.  “Oh, when do you celebrate Christ’s birth?”  I asked.  “Well, we are not sure when it happened so we do not officially celebrate it,” was the answer.  This puzzled me tremendously, as the birth of Christ is one of
the founding principles of Christianity.  Christ’s existence is the reason Christianity came into being (well, that and Paul spreading the word after he died, but I digress).  But, in the end, who am I to argue a person’s religious views?  So a nice Jewish girl truly benefited from her secular education in America by being able to share the story of Christmas with my chugakkou-sei.


Stacy Smith
During my 3 years as a JET in Kumamoto I rarely got homesick, but when this affliction did strike it would inevitably be during an American holiday, which is why I was happy to discover that there was evidently an annual international Thanksgiving dinner where I lived.  Determined to see what it was all about, I went to check it out my first year with an Australian and an American friend.  The dinner was potluck-style, and our contributions were motley to say the least.  My American friend had made the 1-hour journey from the inaka
on his bike, on the way passing a town famous for watermelon, so he decided to pick one up to bring along.  I had made my famous rice-cooker banana cake (due to lack of an oven), and my Australian friend brought fresh bread.

The dinner was housed in a facility that normally was a kindergarten run by a couple in charge of a local Lutheran church.  The three of us arrived to find a full house and a sign at the check-in table reading:  “100 yen for a paper plate and a set of chopsticks.  Donations welcome!”  Behind the counter was an area filled with assorted presents that were being collected for a holiday toy drive.  We walked into the spacious room to find a mix of Japanese and international families, and tables spread with all sorts of goodies.  There was the usual Thanksgiving fare of pumpkin pie (thanks to Costco) and stuffing, as well as the more Japanese offerings of umeboshi and sushi.  Despite a turnout of close to 100 people, once we were all seated and holding dishes stuffed with food, we went around the room and shared what we were thankful for.  Responses varied from the typical (family, friends, health, etc.) to the only-in-Japan answers (“I’m
thankful for watermelon!”), the latter of which caused my friend to beam and admit that lugging the melon in his basket on the way over had been hard but worth it.  Once a bilingual blessing had been offered, chopsticks were broken and we all dug into our holiday fare.

I have to say it was my first time eating turkey with chopsticks and that I did miss having cranberry sauce, but other than that it was a Thanksgiving that felt very close to home in spirit.  Our bellies full, my friends and I geared up for the bike ride home (thankfully downhill!), though at that moment even simple movement was difficult.  For the remainder of my time on JET, I enjoyed this unconventional celebration every November, and have to say that I kind of missed having sushi at the Thanksgiving table this year.


Toby Weymiller
West Seattle, Earth
Fuyu yasumi of 1999/2000 was amazing!!  At the time, I was the OSIG (Outdoor Special Interest Group) President and had coordinated many trips and events, as well as constructed the frequent newsletters to my members across Japan. However, the two weeks in Niseko over Christmas and New Year’s this particular vacation were absolutely incredible.

First of all, I rented a 3 story cottage for the entire two weeks and invited any and all OSIG members to come, as well as fellow Hokkaido JET s who didn’t have anything better to do for the holidays than ski, party and break in the millenium in a place they would surely never forget.  Nearly every day, we skied untracked powder, soaked in rotenburo hot springs, drank cheap imported beer and played card games (which usually involved drinking large quantities of alcohol) late into the evening.  Every morning, we would wake up early and start the whole daily ritual again with smiles that ran from one ear to the other.  By the time December 31st arrived, we had people sleeping in closets, on tables and pretty much any place they could find room for a sleeping bag.  The genkan, in fact, became a mountain of shoes that we aptly named, “Niseko-fuji!”

Finally, the party held at JoJo’s Cafe (approximately 15 or 50 steps, depending on how straight a line you were walking, from our cottage) on New Year’s Eve was the icing on the cake.  A band called “Boogie Nights” came down from Sapporo and played amazing covers into the wee hours of the morning with, of course, the famous Prince cover being played as the clock struck 12.  My mate, Keith (a.k.a. Snapper), and I attempted to stay up all night so that we could be on the first gondola ride in the morning.  We both fell asleep
about 6:30am, but got up around 11am to enjoy yet another 1/2 day of epic Hokkaido Powder.  Many choose to take a polar bear plunge on this day or watch the sunrise from Mt. Fuji.  Snaps and I decided to ski the deep and by looking at our grins at the end of the day, there was no doubt we had started off the new century properly.

In summary, the world did not end on Y2K, but if it did, we would have all been in a great place to say, “Sayonara.”  Fuyu Yasumi 1999/2000 was truly an unforgettable JET memory!


Shannan Spisak
My first Thanksgiving the three American ALTs in my city went to the foreign food store in Tokyo and bought traditional Thanksgiving ingredients.  We RENTED a kitchen at the local international center (since no one’s apartment had an actual oven or enough space to cook a large meal!), made turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, etc.  Then brought all the food back to two ALT apts in the same building.  We hosted about 15 people (Japanese and other non-american JETs) bewteen the two closet sized spaces – one held the food and
coats/shoes, while the other provided floor and folding chair space for eating!  It was a very successful celebration….


Lynette Martyn
I remember one Thanksgiving when I hosted a big turkey (make that chicken) dinner for some expats and Japanese friends. All the pictures are smokey from cooking so much food in a not well ventilated apartment. The Japanese guests particularly enjoyed my Italian rice stuffing. :)


Matt Jungblutt
My dad lived in Tokyo, so every Thanksgiving we would get the world’s smallest turkey from the National Azabu Store and cook it in the only western style oven that many of our friends had ever seen. The first year we invited my first JET boss and two couples from my dad’s office that we really liked.  Eventually (around five years later) we wound up having about thirty JETs coming to the Thanksgiving events, many of them British, Kiwi, Irish or Canadian – so often it was their first time having and American style Thanksgiving meal, and some of our Japanese regulars would be preparing cranberry relish and stuffing.

Generally I hated New Years in Japan, cold, everything closed, boring, and being on the outside of society, quite lonely.  Yet our Tokyo house was minutes from Meiji Jingu, and in our neighborhood there were several mini-New Year’s only shrines set up for donations.  One year I got the bright idea to put out a wooden box and hang a little sign that said in Japanese “outer-outer Meiji Jingu shrine donation area – alcohol donations requested only” on the front steps of our house, with two bottles of beer to give people the idea.
Later my father, brother and a few friends went over to the nearby Hato-yama shrine, (which was famous for sumo in some way) and goofed around with a priest we knew, who later introduced us to a few of the lower level wrestlers. When we returned home there were a few more bottles of beer, some 500ml cans, and three or four bottles of decent sake. Better presents than I had gotten that Christmas.


Rosie DeFremery
My most memorable Thanksgivings ever were celebrated while on JET.  I guess you appreciate them more when you’re no longer living in the States and you actually have to put some effort into observing the holiday.� I was friends with a JET named Steve who lived in Shuzenji, a well-known resort and onsen town on Shizuoka’s Izu Peninsula.  He set up this incredible weekend gathering in which we all converged on Shuzenji on a Saturday and headed out to an onsen resort that had expansive facilities including a restaurant.  Steve spent weeks in advance of Thanksgiving procuring a turkey via the Foreign Buyer’s Club and researching recipes to then share with the staff of the restaurant in the hope that they might be able to put together a special meal for us.  It was a five-course culinary adventure, delicious to the last bite, and we all ended up fuller than full as is the mandate.  Some of us were plenty tipsy too. We were all blown away by how perfectly the Japanese staff executed the Thanksgiving plan.  What made it better than perfect was the onsen
trip afterward followed by a dessert course! Unbelievable.  I have yet to top that Thanksgiving despite some other memorable get-togethers in subsequent years.

I also have humorous memories of my mom visiting during Chanukah and somehow losing our chanukkiah, so seeing as we weren’t likely to find another one in Japan we ended up sticking some candles in her peanut butter and jelly sandwich & lighting them up. Totally not halacha-approved but makes for a funny memory.


Alexei Esikoff
I lived in inaka, but I had a good friend who worked in Tokyo, and who invited me to spend Thanksgivng with her at a pub that was having a turkey-and-cranberry feast for American expats. I had lived in Japan for only 4 months at that point, and had ventured into Tokyo once. Needless to say I was excited. But when one of my chugakkos informed me that there was an enkai that night in my honor, I felt I couldn’t turn them down. So instead of stuffing my face with food I missed and craved with people who understood my
childhood TV references, I ended up in a hostess bar, cramming sushi down my throat so I wouldn’t have to pay attention to my principal. He was standing on a table with his tie around his head, Rambo-style, singing the Carpenters. (“I know English song!”) The hostesses, feigning delight, clapped along. Of course at school the next day, the principal had restored his dignity; his baggy eyes the only sign of the night before.  My Tokyo friend called later to say I missed a wild event:  Fujimori and his son made an appearance at this Thanksgiving event. Exiled dictators make for a much more interesting story to write home about than drunken bosses.


Steven Horowitz
Thanksgiving in my family, is the craziest, funnest holiday involving about 40 relatives going to the beach and playing a big football game where half the family dresses up as chickens. (It’s a long story.) So my first Thanksgiving in Japan, where ovens are a rarity and turkeys only available via special import, was looking to be a little depressing.  That is, until I saw a listing at the Nagoya International Center for a guy willing to cook up a Thanksgiving dinner for a group for only the cost of the food itself.  It sounded a little too good to be true, so I called up Lon, from Western Canada originally, and went to meet up with him and find out the scoop.  I thought he was going to be some sort of weirdo-gaijin-freak, but it turned out Lon’s wife was on an extended trip to Canada and he just really likes cooking. It also turned out he would host it in his own house, where he had an oven.  The dinner he explained included a big ol’ turkey, a couple sides, a salad, and a choice of two different kinds of pie. Oh yes, and videotapes of Cheers episodes!  Meanwhile, I always
spent every Saturday playing ultimate frisbee with a bunch of ex-pats and Japanese folks in a park in Nagoya, so getting a group together and convincing them to play football instead of frisbee and then head over for a super excellent dinner was easy as, well, pie.  It all worked out perfectly, the food kicked major oshiri, and the pies were heavenly. It was the best substitute Thanksgiving I could ever have conceived of. Wish I still knew how to get in touch with Lon to thank him.

My other favorite holiday memory is leading a Passover seder in Japan.  A few frisbee friends decided to make one happen, and it turned out I was the most knowledgeable about how to lead the service.  So we had about 5 gaijin and 4 Japanese friends gathered in a super-tiny tatami-floor apartment, somehow we had matzoh and matzoh balls (I think my mom had sent me a matzoh ball soup mix), and, my favorite part, we used wasabi for the bitter herb.  Oh yeah, and for the hide-the-matzoh part of the seder, we all had to close our eyes while one person hid the matzah in the super-tiny apartment.  (It was found behind the picture on the wall.)

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