My year in Japan: my first white Christmas

This time of year is always a time of mixed feeling for me. I’m sure it is for many people, although probably for different reasons like not achieving new year’s resolutions etc. Although maybe that comes later as it’s not quite new year’s yet.

This is the time of year when I moved to live in Japan for a year and then moved back from Japan. So all the Facebook and Google photos flashbacks are reminding me that at this time once of the best experiences of my life was starting and (a year later) ending. I’ll write a proper post on the expat experience and the move (and all the prep for the move) another time, but seeing as Christmas is almost on us I thought I write a little about that.

My Christmas is Japan was also my first white Christmas. I’d grown up reading all the Christmas stories, which heavily featured snow and sweater and sitting by a fireside – fairly different to the classic Australian Christmas, which in contrast is more sun and swimsuits and sitting by a poolside. So the possibility of a white Christmas was pretty exciting.

Obviously snow isn’t guaranteed right across Japan so I headed for the mountains, specifically the city of Takayama (one of my favourite places in Japan, a bit more off the beaten track) up in the mountains in the Gifu region, to increase my chances of snow. I was admittedly a little nervous that I wouldn’t get any, but on the shinkansen (bullet train) of the way up into the hills I quickly saw I had nothing to worry about.

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Whilst Takayama is a somewhat large-ish city, the heart of it (or at least the part that catches my heart) is in around Old Town, filled with homes, stores and temples many years old. Also if you venture a little further out you can find Hida no Sato – a small folk village with a lot of original farmhouses and other gorgeous old traditional buildings. Both Old Town and Hida no Sato turn into beautiful black-and-white snapshots in winter. The old wood of the buildings turning into a deep brown-black colour, stained with age and smoke from the fireplaces, contrasting perfectly with the freshly fallen snow. If the weather is clear you also get some spectacular blue skies, and the view of the mountains from up the hill at Hida no Sato is hard to match.

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I got there just before Christmas so had plenty of time to explore Takayama before Christmas day. There are a lot of brilliant little restaurants and sake breweries through the city, including in old town. Plus many of the restaurants sell Hida beef, which is from the area and you should try if you can! In winter nabe (hotpot) or sukiyaki are delicious and warming and I highly recommend either. Some hotpot restaurants will do a hot pot for the table, others will have individual little burners/stoves for each individual so you can enjoy everything exactly how you personally want it (like in the photos below).

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One of the nights I was out and wandering (Christmas eve) I also stumbled across a Japanese mascot parade/concert – something that was both uniquely Japanese and super fun to watch.

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Like Christmas Eve (and the couple days before), Christmas Day was snowy and white, so I definitely got my white Christmas. In terms of the traditional white Christmases though it was totally – and wonderfully – different.

Whilst I was in Takayama I stayed in Zenkoji Temple (https://takayamazenkoji.jp/), a buddhist temple were anyone can pay a small donation/fee for accommodation. The rooms are traditional Japanese tatami, you sleep on futons, and there is a big communal kitchen you can use so you have the option of going out or cooking in. You can also experience a number of things unique to the temple/a temple stay, like attending prayers, or walking through a pitch black tunnel (kaidan meguri) built under the main temple hall – there’s a “lock” in the middle you have to find with only touch not sight that will bring good fortune.

So, I started Christmas morning with green tea, sitting on tatami, looking out over a beautiful little Japanese-style garden in an inner part of the Zenkoji temple grounds.

This was followed by a shopping trip to pick up an assortment of food including the “traditional” fried chicken for Christmas (KFC has become the traditional Christmas food in Japan, and while I couldn’t find a KFC within easy walking distance (at least not with the snow and cold temperature), there were plenty of convenience stores or conbini nearby with options! I was travelling with a couple of friends and together we spent some time in the kitchen at the temple making a Christmas feast with the fried chicken included, along with a fairly thrown together assortment of things we could find, to vaguely emulate some of the Christmas dishes we were used to, in the nearby conbini.

After that we set out to explore some more of Takayama followed by some time at Hida no Sato folk village after sunset, when the whole village is illuminated over Christmas. I’ve got quite a few photos of that (including one of my slightly pitiful – but i like to think adorable – snowman). Pictures cover the cemetery and temple up the in hills near old town, as well as the old farm houses and frozen lake of Hida no Sato. In summary a series of snapshots of a totally untraditional (or maybe a mix of many traditions?) white Christmas in the mountains, finished with Japanese Christmas cake (with strawberries on top) back at the temple. I’ll leave it here, but hopefully you enjoying have a scroll through the photos below.

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P.S. Sorry for the photos spam. I know they’re not the best quality – these are back from 2012 Christmas now, and I (and am) still learning how to take good photos, plus my hands were freezing while taking many of them, which made it harder. That said, when I get nostalgic for Japan, my home-away-from-home, like I am now I love going back through some of my old photos. Even if they’re not polished pictures, they are all some of my best memories so that makes it hard to pick and choose among them. Happy holidays, and here’s hoping you make some equally good memories x

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