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Merii Kurisumasu!: Christmas in Japan

Merii Kurisumasu!: Christmas in Japan

by Katie Smith 22 December 2015

Christmas in Japan is ‘more Santa Claus than Jesus’ as Katie Smith finds out when she talks to Ken Yamada, chef and co-founder of the London-based Japanese restaurants Tonkotsu and Tsuru.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

Christmas in Japan weirdly conjures up thoughts of KFC and fried chicken to those both in the country and further afield thanks to the fast food chain’s enormously successful ‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ (‘Kentucky for Christmas!’) marketing campaign way back in 1974. The campaign soon garnered momentum and now every year outlets around Japan serve up a Christmas dinner menu including festive barrels filled with a selection of fried and roasted chicken, salad, cake and even Champagne!

This may be the case in Japan’s larger cities, but for Ken Yamada, head chef and co-founder of popular London-based Japanese restaurants Tonkotsu and Tsuru, there wasn’t a KFC in sight in his childhood Christmas. ‘I grew up in a small fishing town about two and a half hours away from Tokyo and there was no KFC nearby,’ he explains. ‘I happened to go to a Christian school without realising at the time so I knew the nativity story, but most kids wouldn’t be aware of it.’ This is because Shino is the main religion in Japan, so for most people Christmas is a commercially-centred affair, and as Ken puts it, Christmas is ‘more Santa Claus than Jesus’.

Tokyo really pushes the boat out when it comes to Christmas decorations, bathing the busy roads in light from illuminations displayed on iconic buildings like the Tokyo tower and wrapped around the trees which line the streets. ‘They go over the top, as you can imagine,’ says Ken. ‘It’s pretty spectacular. Tacky I’d say, but nonetheless they go all out.’ Apart from the decorations and commercial hype, Christmas is just like any other working day in Japan and isn’t a national holiday. ‘All the shops and restaurants are open, unlike here in the UK, where everything shuts,’ Ken explains.

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The illuminated streets of Tokyo at night
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Tokyo's busy daytime streets

What's for dinner?

 
 
Christmas cake is very important but it’s nothing like the cake we have here. It’s always a strawberry sponge cake decorated with lots of cream.

Ken Yamada

When it comes to Christmas dinner, turkey and all the trimmings is definitely not on the menu. ‘Turkey is not very often eaten in Japan,’ says Ken. In fact, ‘it would most likely be a pre-cooked roast leg of chicken if you were to eat something like a traditional turkey, but that’s quite over the top.’ That doesn’t stop the department stores in Tokyo stocking the shelves with ‘tonnes of roasted chicken legs’ for hungry customers in the bustling food halls, though.

For the real essence of a Japanese Christmas, you need Christmas cake. This cake is a world away from the rich, alcohol-infused fruit cake we have become accustomed to enjoying with a nice cup of tea on Christmas Day. ‘Christmas cake is very important but it’s nothing like the cake we have here. It’s always a strawberry sponge cake decorated with lots of cream,’ Ken recalls. Although the origins of this cake are lost in history, what is known is that this indulgent cream covered cake was first sold in 1922, becoming a mainstay of Japanese Christmas traditions by the 1960s with the development of refrigerated displays. This unique Christmas dessert is now so entrenched in Japanese food culture that ‘every family will go and get this Christmas cake’ to devour on Christmas Day.

Japanese New Year

 
Nobody really eats noodles at dinner time, other than ramen which is eaten late at night (and after you’ve been drinking).

Ken Yamada

It is New Year that is the true time for celebration in Japan. ‘It feels more like Christmas,’ says Ken. ‘Everything is shut and it is a time for family, and if you are religious there are a lot of festivities at the temples.’ The central component in these festivities is, of course, food, as in many other cultures across the globe. Preparations start in earnest weeks in advance, with the ‘chef of the family, usually mum, spending a couple of weeks before New Year’s preparing osechi,’ explains Ken. This is an authentic Japanese New Year meal served in ‘boxes and kept in a cold place or in the fridge’. They are filled with tasty morsels designed to represent items of significance to the family, and may include a fish paste called kamaboko, which is delicately shaped to represent the rising sun. ‘The box always comes out every meal time,’ Ken elaborates. ‘I grew up with it, but if I think about it now it’s quite an odd thing to do.’

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On top of these pre-prepared osechi boxes are ‘beef and rice cakes’ known as mochi. On New Year’s Day the cakes are grilled until they puff up and can be found stirred into a ‘soy-based bonito soup’ or miso stock to form ‘zōni’. In line with traditional Japanese customs, zōni is only ever eaten in ‘the first week of January’, after which it ‘just disappears off the menu’. No one Japanese recipe is the same, with each region adding their own twist to the popular dish. ‘That was the main thing when I was growing up,’ Ken explains, and his own family’s recipe included ‘whatever greens were available in the winter, like shiitake mushrooms and yuzu rinds’, expertly combined to create a truly ‘heart-warming’ dish.

Unlike zōni, strict Japanese food traditions are cast aside when it comes to noodles at New Year. Normally, ‘noodle dishes are always exclusively eaten at lunch time,’ says Ken. ‘Nobody really eats noodles at dinner time, other than ramen which is eaten late at night (and after you’ve been drinking).’ This is swiftly forgotten on New Year’s Eve though, when it is considered ‘good luck to cross over into the following year’ with a bowl of delicious udon or soba noodles. ‘I always remember feeling a bit weird slurping up soba or udon at night time,’ Ken elaborates.

 

Home for Christmas

 
 

January is also the main event for the team at Ken’s Tonkotsu and Tsuru restaurants. ‘Unfortunately it’s the busiest time of the year so we always celebrate Christmas in January,’ he explains, although Christmas has managed to sneak its way onto Tonkotsu’s December menu. The ramen restaurant’s Selfridges branch features ‘a goose ramen for the Christmas period which goes down very well with the customers,’ Ken reveals. So, if you fancy injecting a bit of Japan into your Christmas festivities, there’s quite a bit to choose from. But one thing you must include is the Christmas cake: ‘It wouldn’t be a Japanese Christmas without the cake,’ concludes Ken.

 
 

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