Food is central to every holiday celebration, and Japan is no exception. The fresh, seasonal ingredients, precise preparation and the complete visual aesthetic—color, balance and design—of traditional Japanese cuisine represent thousands of years of traditions, stories and symbolism. But it’s not just traditional Japanese foods that make this country a stand out in the world of gastronomy. The Japanese are particularly adept at taking foods and traditions from other countries and turning them into something better.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Tokyo where you’ll find every type of cuisine you could ever want—and an improved version of your favorites. The city of Tokyo has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world: more than Paris and New York combined! It’s all here -- every regional Japanese cuisine, as well as French, Chinese, Russian, Mexican, Thai, superlative steak houses, and more. In fact, one of the best Italian dinners I’ve ever eaten was in Tokyo, because of the incredibly fresh ingredients, attention to detail, and chefs trained in Italy itself.
With so many dining options, you’d expect all of the residents of Tokyo to celebrate the holidays with a dinner out. But in fact, on Christmas Eve, you’ll find many families waiting in line for a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken! Capitalizing on the lack of turkey in Japan that caused visitors to seek out fried chicken as an alternative Christmas dinner, KFC launched a brilliant advertising campaign in the 1970s. As a result, “Saunders Claus” shows up each December and buckets of KFC are in such demand on Christmas Eve that Tokyo residents put in their orders as early as October. KFC’s in Tokyo even offer champagne and cake to go with their chicken. Obviously, Japan does KFC better than the USA.
But for couples, if your idea of a romantic Christmas dinner doesn’t include a bucket of crispy or original fried chicken, don’t worry, top restaurants throughout Tokyo offer Christmas meals serving everything from fancy French courses to an American-style buffet with roast beef, ham, and turkey carving stations.
While Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, it’s celebrated with Santa hats, inflatable snowmen, gift giving and beautiful holiday lights and decorations throughout the city. It’s viewed more as a celebration of western culture than a holiday with religion at its core. And, like any good holiday, dessert is at the center of the festivities. In this case it’s the Japanese Christmas Cake or kurisumasu kēki.
A sponge cake covered with snowy white whipped cream and adorned with a circle of perfectly shaped red strawberries—colors symbolic of the Japanese flag—the Japanese Christmas Cake became popular after World War II. At that time the Japanese embraced the ideals of American holiday celebrations as symbols of prosperity—including Santa Claus, Christmas decorations and sugar and cream filled cakes.
Although sponge cake had been around in Japan since the 17thcentury, its primary ingredients—sugar, milk and butter—were only available for the wealthy. With the rebuilding of Japan’s economy, those items were more readily available and the Japanese Christmas Cake became a symbol of prosperity. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve seen this cake: it’s an emoji on your smartphone!
New Year’s is the most important holiday for the Japanese and comes with many traditions dating back a thousand years, including the eating of osechi ryori. Considered the most important meal of the year, osechi ryori is comprised of an array of colorful dishes packed together in boxes called jubako (resembling Bento boxes). So that families don’t have to cook on New Year’s Day, osechi ryori is prepared in advance. In fact, pre-made boxes are available everywhere -- from convenience stores like 7-Eleven to exclusive department stores to top restaurants. The colors and flavors are rich in symbolism and are believed to bring a new year filled with health, prosperity, bountiful harvests and even children, to those who partake.
Another traditional New Year’s specialty is ozoni, a soup containing mochi—boiled sticky rice that is mashed and formed into a white dumpling. The soup is eaten on New Year’s Day in the hopes of ringing in a good year.
The New Year's drink of choice is o-toso. It’s warm saké, into which a mixture of herbs has been steeped for several hours. The mixture includes: cinnamon, rhubarb, sansho pepper, okera (atractylodis rhizome), and kikyou (platycodi radix). Drinking it with loved ones, in ceremonial fashion, first thing on New Year’s Day, is said to ward off sickness for the entire year ahead, as well as invite peace within the household.
Whether you’re visiting Tokyo for the holidays or throughout the year, you can rest assured you will eat well. Anthony Bourdain wrote of Tokyo in his “Parts Unknown” blog: “If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it.”
December 16, 2016