As I write this, there’s currently a pretty vicious whiteout occurring outside my school. I can barely see past the parking lot from my office window. Welcome to Aomori’s winter! (I know, I know, I’ve been saying that winter is finally here for about three weeks now…)
Preparation for the winter season is pretty easy to detect. The signs are everywhere you look, but last winter, I didn’t really notice them all that much. And if I did, I didn’t know what they meant. This year, though, they absolutely jumped out at me. Here’s how we in Aomori know that winter is coming…
First, thin red and white poles start popping up all around the city along the sidewalks. They’re there to ensure that whatever is underneath them – be it benches, post boxes, or the curb – doesn’t get run over in the winter by cars or snow plows. It also gives you an idea of just how high the snow can accumulate.
The Japanese are also pretty protective of their foliage, which is evidenced by the fact that all of the shrubs in the city suddenly sprout wooden or bamboo headgear. It’s to ensure that the weight of Aomori’s snow – which is extremely wet and heavy – doesn’t crush the branches below. A lot of people also tie the branches up with rope so they can’t break under the snow.
And naturally, Christmas decorations start popping up everywhere. My local grocery store has a giant inflatable sleigh – complete with reindeer and Santa – suspended over the meat department. Several Christmas trees have popped up around the city, and one of the hotels near the station even incorporated Santa into their décor. (Though why three of them are scaling the glass like cat burglars, I’m not quite sure…)
Then there’s the advertisements that start going up for holiday food. It really shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of my favorite parts of the holidays involves food. But here in Japan, holiday food is done a little bit differently…Christmas dinner isn’t a huge spread with ham, mashed potatoes, and the like. Nope. Japanese people chow down on Kentucky fried chicken on Christmas. And it’s so popular that you actually have to reserve your chicken beforehand. Apparently, KFC saw a niche market in Japan and started advertising that all Americans eat fried chicken for their Christmas dinner, so now they think it’s traditional. In fact, loads of my students have reacted with genuine surprise when I tell them that I’ve never heard of an American family having a “traditional” Christmas dinner that involved KFC. They’re also pretty dead set on having a “Christmas cake,” too. (Bonus random fact: Women in Japan who are over 25 are jokingly referred to as “Christmas cakes,” because, like the food they’re named after, nobody wants them after the 25th.)
Then there’s osechi (おせち), which is standard New Year’s food in Japan. And if KFC seems a little too informal for Christmas dinner, おせち definitely makes up for it. It usually incorporates extremely fancy sushi and is ridiculously expensive. One of my favorite sushi restaurants in Aomori, Kantaro, has an osechi set that costs about 25,000円. For comparison, my round-trip bullet train tickets to Tokyo are about 35,000円 (around $450, depending on the exchange rate). To put it lightly, it’s a pretty expensive meal.
When all of those things align together, you know it’s time to batten down the hatches, stock up on kerosene, and haul out the snow boots. Winter is coming.