Few Japanese are actually Christians. So why is Christmas such a big deal in Japan?
No place celebrates Christmas with more fervor than Japan, which is a little odd when you think about it. After all, according to the U.S. State De-partment, "49.7 percent of Japanese citizens adhere to Shintoism, 44.5 percent to Buddhism, 5 percent to so-called ‘new’ religions, and 0.8 percent to Christianity." How did it come to be that the Japanese celebrate the holiday, and what traditions do they observe?
· It wasn’t until after World War II, when American troops and their families settled in Japan, that Christmas began to have widespread appeal to the Japanese. It may have been an unconscious way of paying homage to the victors. The Japanese found elements of Christmas —love, family, buying presents, eating a good meal—easy to embrace. In that culture, holidays are meant as special occasions during which we should meditate on our relationships to God and community.
· The Japanese use the marketplace to promote this meditation on God, community and family. This consumerism on steroids is a lot like being back in the U.S., but to a greater degree. Disney Japan, which opened in 1982, has successfully pitched to families the idea that no Christmas is complete without a day spent with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Cinderella, and all their friends.
· What kind of gourmet spread can you look forward to if you’re celebrating Christmas in, say, Tokyo? A bucket of chicken from KFC. A marketing genius at KFC, Kentakki furaido chikin, opened the first franchise in Japan in 1970. By December 1974, the company launched its first Christmas campaign. Today in Japan, it is considered de rigueur to have KFC at Christmas. And at many of the restaurants throughout the country, you will see Colonel Sanders decked out in a red suit and cap looking a lot like Santa Kuroosu.
· The least commercialized Christmas tradition in Japan is The Daiku. "The Daiku, or Great Nine, refers to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony," explained Susan Chikuba, a New Jersey émigré and Tokyo-based writer, who has resided in Japan for the past 17 years. "It is traditionally performed in many places at Christmas —sometimes with huge, massed choruses."
· In Japan, Christmas is considered to be more a time for romance than family togetherness. Hotels and restaurants offer special romantic packages.
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—Samara D. Genee
Question one determines if it’ll be Santa Fe’s Wild West or native Southwest influence that will capture your heart. Question two solves the dilemma of which type of chile will blanket your breakfast burrito. And question three? Well, if you hadn’t figured it out already, that pertains to how you take your margarita.
Fortunately, it doesn’t much matter which way you go in the Land of Enchantment’s jewel city, because shopping for cowboy boots can be just as fun as exploring centuries-old cliff dwellings at the nearby Bandelier National Monument, or walking through Taos Pueblo, America’s oldest continuously inhabited community. The tangy green chile (not chili) served in virtually every restaurant is no better or worse than the more fiery red chile; it’s just different. And while I prefer my margarita rimmed with coarse salt, you may like yours without.
And therein lies the beauty of this sophisticated but decidedly not snobby region. There’s something for every visitor to enjoy, from outdoor opera in the summer to the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Festival (www.santafewineandchile.org) in the fall to skiing in the winter; from four-star lodging to camping under the magnified Milky Way; from contemporary, western and native art housed in more than 300 galleries to folk art and the works of Georgia O’Keeffe gracing the walls of multiple museums.
Start your day at Café Pascual’s (121 Don Gaspar; tel: 505.983.9340), a Santa Fe legend for the past 20 years. This little joint on the corner of Don Gaspar and Water Street seats but 50 people at hardwood tables; the lines can be long, especially at breakfast when reservations are not accepted. But put your name on the list and get ready to groove on delicious Mexican/New Mexican concoctions like smoked trout hash served with poached eggs, crunchy hash browns and tomatillo chile de árbol sauce.
Among Santa Fe’s most refined restaurants, Geronimo (724 Canyon Road; tel: 505.982.1500) is an elegant spot housed in an 18th-century adobe home on gallery-studded Canyon Road. Chef Eric DiStefano turns out creative appetizers like house-smoked duck breast on arugula dressed with poached apple and a sun-dried fig vinaigrette, as well as rich main courses such as peppered elk tenderloin enlivened by smoky bacon, garlic smashed potatoes, snap peas and morels. If any one place in Santa Fe features cuisine made for fine wine, it’s Geronimo, where the list is good but expensive.
The home of more than 100 different margaritas and authentic, borderline volcanic New Mexican food is Maria’s (555 W. Cordova Road; tel: 505.983.7929), which has been pleasing locals and tourists since the 1950s. Here Tequila shots and slammers are wholeheartedly discouraged while the pursuit of the so-called "real" margarita, one made from real Tequila, real triple sec and real lime or lemon juice, is the mantra. And the carnitas in red chile are great.
Up the road about an hour from Santa Fe is Taos, a ski haven in winter and home to a good many galleries, restaurants and the aforementioned Native American pueblo. Joseph’s Table in the Hotel La Fonda (108 South Taos Plaza; tel: 505.751.4512) is by far Taos’s best restaurant. Here chef Joseph Wrede turns out daily specials including clever salads made from local organic greens and delicious meats, such as a bison ribeye topped with blue cheese and served on a pillow of mashed potatoes. A small but fairly eclectic wine list offers more than enough pairing potential.
For the ultimate east-meets-west experience, Ten Thousand Waves (3451 Hyde Park Road; tel: 505. 992.5025; www.tenthousandwaves.com) just north of central Santa Fe is a Japanese/Southwestern spa and lodge that truly focuses on health. That doesn’t mean the rooms, which include a 19-foot Airstream trailer called the Silver Moon, are stark. Far from it, in fact. Luxury is the theme.
Back in Santa Fe, there are a number of fine hotels within blocks of the plaza, including