Christmas in Japan involves spending the holidays in a place where marketers around the country sit at their desks laughing with glee at their unlikely success.
Statues of Colonel Sanders up and down the country get decked out from around November in full Santa get-up, and signs start appearing suggesting you should reserve a table now, to avoid disappointment when you rock up on the 25th to collect your Christmas family bucket.
Whereas the western world mostly spends Christmas with family, Christmas in Japan is a day for lovers. Couples meet, eat chicken, and then head off to the packed-out love hotels (which come in themes varying from Snoopy, to dungeons, to hospitals, to roman cities).
If you want to partake in the madness, the best places to stay in the city for something unusual (and less pricy than the crazy hotels of Shinjuku), I’d recommend staying in a capsule hotel, or trying out a love hotel for yourself! Unfortunately love hotels can’t be booked in advance, but if you go into the foyer there will be a machine letting you know which rooms are available, with prices according to the time you wish to spend there (which can be up to 24 hours. As many of them come with Nintendo Wiis, saunas and karaoke, this definitely isn’t too long, and you can order anonymously-delivered room service any time of the day). You don’t have to go in a couple either; I’ve been several times alone and have been allowed in with no trouble. In terms of capsule hotels, one of the few which provides both male and female faux-coffins is this one. The staffs are very friendly (insider hint: if you make friends with them free beer could be on the cards), speak English, and it’s about 20 mins from the very centre of the city. Generally a night in a capsule hotel will cost you 3,000 yen.
In Spain, Christmas doesn’t really kick off until the New Year, after which it’s like consecutive days of Black Friday mayhem with everyone heading out to the shops. This culminates on 5th Jan, when the festival of the three kings begins.
This festival takes place in every town around Spain and her islands (almost), and essentially involves three men riding camels through the streets and throwing sweets at children. As the children then turn around and throw the sweets themselves, this can be a slightly dangerous gamble for a ‘nice evening out’. The parades are usually very elaborate, and people will be having parties afterwards until the early hours, so if you’ve already had Christmas at home and feel like doing it again – this is a great option. The best place to see this is in Tenerife, where the kings arrive in style via helicopter and boat.
To keep the madness going without the help of copious amounts of sangria, another slightly strange island activity is the Harley bike tours or buggy tours in Costa Adeje. The guides will be fun and friendly, and it’s much better than waiting for local buses as a means of getting around (you’ll see why when you get used to ‘Spanish Time’). The weirdest thing, however, may simply be the weather; if you’re used to a cold Christmas and being tucked up indoors, being able to go to the beach on Christmas day feels incredibly weird!
Christmas in the UK is probably similar to most Christian countries in that mornings are filled with present opening, Christmas lunches are gorged on around lunchtime or in the afternoon, and then people settle in front of the TV (although one slight difference might be the viewing content: here we watch the Queen’s speech before moving on to a Harry Potter or festive film marathon).
For tourists to the country, however, there are ways to spend the holidays a little differently.
As public transportation is down for the 25th, it’s not easy to get around on the actual day of Christmas, but there are tour operators who will ferry you to and from your hotels whilst showing you the sites. The main tour operators in London are Premium, Golden Tours and Evan Evans, all of whom do Christmas-special tours to Stonehenge.
Seeing the giant, Neolithic relics is definitely a slightly odd festive experience, especially as the site is shut and deserted (unlike the rest of the year when it is heaving with tourists, Obama and thousands of tiny black flies).
Alternatively, if you want to stay nearer the city, Hampstead Heath is home to several swimming ponds and the brave and daring tend to head out there on Christmas day for a spot of below-freezing swimming. It’s a good way to stay away from the leftovers, at least.
Finally – there’s always the super British option of heading to the pub for pints and packets of crisps. They’re usually open after lunch, and will serve Christmas dinners (but you’ll need to book well, well in advance.) Richard Branson’s island is also available to rent, at the meagre price of £24,000 per night. Always an option.
Know of any places where Christmas is spent in an even more unusual way? Let us know!
photo credit: Ari Helminen