The Christmas decorations have been up since October and the insufferable music is playing on loop everywhere; J-Pop Christmas songs with broken English….kill me now!!! This will be the third Christmas I’ve spent in Japan, and it remains one of the most “depressing” times of the year. My Facebook feed has been plastered with pictures of decorated trees, Mariah Carey live performances, and the god-awful John Lewis advert.
Halloween has only recently become a cultural phenomenal in Japan. Masses of young adults have started to dress in costume and party the night away, to the confusion of many onlookers. On Saturday night in Hiroshima there were numerous “cosplay” competitions, culminating in a parade through Hondori shopping arcade. Meanwhile at school, I’ve been informing the students on Halloween as a part of “English culture” though no-one seems particularly interested, me included. Like the many people I’ve overheard discussing the meaning behind the festival, I can’t help but feel that it’s completely meaningless and just for corporations’ pockets.
My Halloween memories aren’t of real note. To be brutally honest, my family and I never really celebrated it. As a child, I never went trick or treating because I didn’t see the point. If I wanted sweets I would ask Mum, whose answer would always be “No!”. Anyway, we’d carve a pumpkin, give chocolates to the few children that came knocking on the door and maybe watch a “scary” film on TV. But we never went anywhere near the extent that some Brits and Americans go to. When I went to university we’d hit the bars and clubs in stupid outfits, but that was about it. The common image of Halloween was never of its historical/ religious origins, but of children, sweets, pumpkins and company profit margins.
Here in Japan, it’s suddenly become a recognised event that has prompted stores to put up Halloween decorations amongst the early Christmas ones. Company brands like Pocky, Kit Kat and Starbucks offer “limited edition” goods based on the festival, usually pumpkin related. However the concept of trick or treating has and will likely never catch on, unless it’s in predetermined and organised events. The thought of children knocking on strangers’ doors in a country known for its conservative values and sometimes disturbing attitude towards children, isn’t a reassuring one. Instead, young adults have started to indulge in the enjoyable side of Halloween.
I spoke with one of my teachers about it all. Last year, her family were invited to the Iwakuni US Marine Corps Air Station’s festivities. Her children liked it so much that she’s been drafted into organising a small-scale version for her street. She’s been emailing neighbours, sending letters and instructions to friends in order to coax them into participating. My mother would never do anything like that! When asking other teachers, they seemed to be under the impression that Halloween was just an opportunity for companies to make more money from selling costumes and goods.
Speaking of costumes, Don Quixote, a store in Japan that practically sells everything, is the go-to place to buy Halloween stuff. Walking through their temporary “Halloween Section”, you’ll find the usual fake blood, prop and decorations. But one thing you’ll notice is that most of it is aimed towards an adult audience. The usual outfits are there; Where’s Wally?, Mario and Cinderella. But then you entire racks dedicated to the raunchy, “sexy” versions of innocent Disney characters, nurses, dominatrixes and school girls. It’s all rather uncomfortable and very off-putting.
It’s clear that Japan’s youth uses Halloween as an opportunity to dress up in something fun, and party. But I still don’t get Halloween’s purpose. I understand the historical nature of it all, but it’s current cultural form is one that is bewildering and utterly pointless. If it’s to scare people, then the barrage of news story and stuff online that we watch is far more scarier than the £10 costume someone made. If it’s for the sole purpose of acquiring chocolate, isn’t that the point every holiday (Easter/ Christmas). I guess it’s more for the kids. It’s a time when children can pretend to be their favourite monster and roam the streets causing mischief without feeling out of place. Yet here in Japan, it’s just an excuse to dress like a zombie and drink too much. So for now, I’ll watch John Carpenter’s The Thing or Halloween, gorge on my girlfriend’s homemade pumpkin pie and lay on the couch. Happy Halloween?
This past weekend I volunteered to participate in the local akimatsuri (Autumn festival) at a nearby temple. Alongside some other fellow foreigners (mainly from Thailand, China and Vietnam), we carried and shuffled around with a mikoshi on our shoulders. Meanwhile elderly people “sang” the latest pop tunes to give thanks to the gods and usher in the new season. Autumn, or Fall, has finally arrived here in Japan to my delight. It’s my favourite time of the year, not simply because the temperature is manageable, but because another beautiful side of Japan is revealed. The Japanese maple (momiji) leaves change from the greens of Spring and Summer, to the browns, reds and oranges of the new season. At the same time, the rice fields turn vibrant shades of yellow right before the harvest starts. Closeup camera-shots of hands brushing against rice and wheat in fields of gold come heavily to mind. Even the unfortunate haze that plagues the scenic landscapes dissipates due to the cold breeze and fresher conditions. Now when I travel to work, I can clearly see across the bay and see Miyajima from the train.
That being said, the temperature has turned perfect. While Japanese people start to complain about “being too cold” and “missing summer”, I saunter along comfortably with a smug look on my face. The temperature is a manageable 20°C, which is still pretty mild by British standards. Of course with any sudden drop, Japan determines that the heating systems in public transport and retail establishments needs to be set on high power. Sogo Department Store in Hiroshima is by far the worst culprit. Therefore choosing clothing becomes a challenge of foresight and awareness. You don’t want too many layers, so I usually stick to three (jacket, hoodie and t-shirt) until the winter months. My unfortunate, but occasionally useful, thick layer of body hair offers sufficient insulation to constitute another layer just in case.
Of course, Autumn and Winter are the seasons associated with “comfort eating”. The ice-cream and cold soba season is over, and in comes sukiyaki and warm soba. I tend to indulge in my sweet tooth during this time with Japanese sweet potatoes and zenzei (sweet bean soup). In conbinis (convenience stores), warm cans/ plastic bottles of coffee and tea can be bought alongside oden, and hand warmers. The selection at vending machines starts to include warm coffee, tea and even soup. Meanwhile restaurants start to serve tea instead of iced water, alongside toasty hand towels.
The season also sees many Japanese people taking advantage of three-day weekends to visit the likes of Nara and Kyoto. My girlfriend and I are travelling to Kyoto during the month of November. We’ll be in the middle of an annual migration as people flock there every year to see the famed autumnal colours and traditional aesthetics. While Tokyo is the hectic, metropolitan heart of Japan, Kyoto is the other, symbolised by tradition and serenity. The combination of historical temples and shrines with the maple trees and fallen leaves, is quintessentially Japanese. Kiyomizu-dera is lit up by night illuminations, while Kinkaku-ji and Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji are surrounded by the autumn foliage making it a photographer’s dream. Yes, it’s fair to say that Autumn in Kyoto is a special sight to see. But for now, it’s time to dust off the kettle and break out the Yorkshire Tea I’ve been saving from my last trip home. Put the shorts and summer clothes into their storage space, and put on the hoodie. I will enjoy it while it lasts.