Feeling Festive: Making the Most of Christmas Away from Home

This article originally featured in the December 2020 issue of Connect.

Jess Langshaw
(Kumamoto 2018-2020)
Photos: Freepik, Jess Langshaw
Illustrations: Freepik

Living away from our home countries can be tricky. Add in darker nights, winter blues, and a global pandemic, and tricky becomes challenging. I’m here to give you some tips and tricks to boost that festive feeling!

Disclaimer: this post is written from a white, Western perspective (where Christmas-related holidays are dominant) and so is narrowed by my own cultural background. There are many readers from all over the world with different cultures whose holidays aren’t as recognised in Japan. I’d urge you to help people to recognise your holiday through celebration! Japan is a country waiting with open arms to learn, and you can engage with your own culture a little more fully, even away from home.

1. Go to Daiso
Daiso is my therapy space. I’d go to Daiso after a long day at work or on a weekend just to wander the aisles and browse the extremely good-value products whilst listening to the jazzy, prog playlists that just happen to play in every shop.

Daiso at Christmas is next level. It’s a great place to buy decorations or stocking fillers for friends. Nitori is another great place to go, especially for getting some cosy, winter decor-like fluffy blankets, kotatsu essentials, as well as those all-important tree decorations (and trees)! You can have a look at their line up here. Or, if you’re feeling extra fancy, you could even head to Tokyu Hands for some amazing gifts.

Enjoy the adventure, enjoy the difference. Grab a KFC!

2. Decorate EVERYTHING

You and your spaces are codependent, which means that how you decorate your space matters a LOT. If you want to feel more festive, then tinsel-ise your flat, your office, even your car! In my second year of living in Japan, I attended my friend’s ‘tree decoration’ party. We turned up with decorations, drinks, and snacks and made a night of decorating her Christmas tree. It was an awesome night, and my friend didn’t have to spend hours putting up decorations!

3. Get a Playlist Together

Fairytale of New York should definitely make this playlist. Other must-includes are Michael Bublé and Pentatonix. Zoning out of your everyday stresses to blast out the ‘youuuuuuuuuuu’ part of Mariah Carey’s famous song is definitely going to help you feel festive. Why not take it to the next level and do it at karaoke—get your friends to join in as backing singers!

4. Eat Christmas

It’s like that saying, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ If you don’t feel it, eat it. Nothing gets me more excited than food. I LOVE food, and so, making themed food is an obvious plus. If you’re lucky enough to have an oven (I went 1½ years in Japan without one) you could even bake! Gingerbread, shortbread, mince pies—you can bake pretty much anything really; just dust it with icing sugar snow and boom—festive.

5. Wander in your Winter Wonderland

Japan most likely doesn’t celebrate Christmas the way that you’re used to, but there are some similarities to those famous Christmas films. There are decorations, lights, cold weather for most, themed Starbucks drinks, and leafless trees. There are even ice-skating rinks, which make for an amazing date/friend date! For anyone remotely in the area, the ice-skating rink at Ebino Plateau is brilliant, and the views around there are stunning!

6. Call Home

Travel may be tricky right now, but you can still Zoom! Staring at your family member’s pixelated faces can be a struggle, so mix it up by planning a quiz or games night! Charades is definitely festive and definitely possible over Zoom.

Another way to get in touch with home is by sending cards or presents. This is something you can start doing now to make sure they arrive on time. Pack your Daiso, Nitori, and Tokyu Hands gifts into a box with some cute cards and stickers, and send them home to spread the Christmas cheer!

7. Embrace the Difference

You’re in Japan for a reason, and while that pull home from Christmas can be difficult, remember why you came; enjoy the adventure, enjoy the difference. Grab a KFC!

One difference that I came to love about my rural Japanese town is the seasonal produce. Back home, every food was available at any time, whereas in Japan, when you see chestnuts lining the shelves, you know that Christmas is coming. Stock up on those and enjoy blasting ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ as you try to master getting the little treasures out of their notoriously difficult inner shells!

One thing that they go big with in Japan is New Year. I spent my first Japanese New Year in Japan with my host family making osechi, the New Year’s feast! It was really fun, and I learnt a lot. Another Japanese custom is hatsuhinode, where people will get up early to greet the first sunrise of the year. I didn’t get to try this one yet, but it’s definitely on my list for 2021. I’m so ready to say goodbye to 2020 and welcome the New Year with open arms.

8. Spread some Christmas Magic

In times when Christmas magic seems to be lacking, bring it! It’s like how teaching someone helps you to learn. When I was 12 (very late, I know) my mum broke the news that Father Christmas isn’t real. In an attempt to console her very upset child, my mum told me that you can still believe in the spirit of Christmas. It’s cheesy, I know, but I still think of that to this day. I’m the one to wish strangers a Merry Christmas, to pass out cards to the neighbours, to try and raise money for those in need, to bake gingerbread and shortbreads for mood-boosting gifts for friends and family. Volunteering is another great idea; you can check Facebook groups or ask around to see if anyone is in need of help during the difficult time of year. My area, the Kuma-gun on Kyūshū, was hit hard with floods this year, and they’re definitely in need of some support, be it physical or financial.

9. Let It Be

Don’t push it. If you’re going to spend Christmas Day crying in bed, then do it. Just appreciate whichever day comes later when you feel better. Don’t submit to the pressure of ‘being happy’ when you just don’t. How you feel is more important than any holiday or societal pressure. This holiday season isn’t going to be the same, I think that’s safe to say. But we can still make the most of it. We can fill our homes and our lives with the Danish hygge (comfort) that goes so perfectly with Christmas. Preparing for Christmas itself can be a welcome distraction. Take care, focus on the positives, but enable the negatives and stay warm!

Merry Christmas, love Jess.

Jess Langshaw was an ALT on the JET Programme for two years in the rural town of Asagiri in Kumamoto. She has contributed to CONNECT Magazine, Kumamoto’s YOKA, and Japan Voices and consistently writes about all things positive on her personal blog, Yokina Living! She managed to travel round all of the prefectures in Kyūshū in her little kei car, Tofu-san, and met some wonderful people on the way—including herself! You can follow her adventures on this blog.