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Life

Christmas in Japan is the most romantic day of the year

Not a national or religious holiday, marriage proposals abound

The Christmas theme Blue Cave illumination event at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, pictured in December 2019: it is all about love actually.   © AP

TOKYO -- I have not been home to Australia for Christmas in over 10 years, maybe longer.

Somehow it was too expensive, too hard, and too hot -- Mum and Dad are in Perth, so fellow West Australians know what I mean. This year is different though. What I would not give to be in Oz celebrating Christmas with my #2 son, family and friends.

I loved Christmas growing up. The rituals, opening our stockings and all the silly Brock Xmas traditions -- a glass of beer before breakfast for the blokes and a sparkling wine and orange juice for the ladies. What was I thinking? I should have started a riot, or a petition at least.

Christmas in Australia means seafood, sun and a swim. Japanese friends find the whole notion of a summery Christmas to be a little unusual and I am often asked if Father Christmas surfs his way to town and whether kangaroos draw his sleigh.

People also ask me what Christmas in Japan is like. That Christmas Day is a normal working-day seems to shock people. I gently remind people Japan is not a Christian country and that not everywhere in the world celebrates Christmas anyway. When I mention that my kids used to go to school on Christmas Day people screw up their face and quietly question my judgment. My kids did too probably. But Christmas in Japan is just different.

Christmas Eve is in fact the big day here. Families celebrate and gather for dinner, decorate trees and little ones are rewarded with a special Santa moment. However, in Japan, December 24 can also mean romance. It is all about love actually.

Restaurants are full of couples on special dates and engagement proposals abound. The "Christmas equals love" media machine has worked well over the years and business is grateful for the end-of-year present buying frenzy. No doubt online present buying featured heavily this year and the takkyubin -- Japan's famous fast home delivery services -- were working overtime so people could avoid the busy shops.

The family Christmas Eve dinner menu is of course very different to what we had growing up in rural Western Australia. Japanese ovens are not big enough to cook a turkey -- thank goodness as I am not a fan! -- so this year we might have sushi or wagyu. Yum.

Kentucky Fried Chicken features heavily in any normal family's Christmas. Yes, KFC! A rather clever campaign in the 70s by the company's marketing team linked their chicken with Christmas in Japan and voila. You do not want to be caught in what can be a two-hour Kentucky queue on Christmas Eve, online sales now take care of that, but when you are next in Japan at Christmas -- and let's cross our fingers that is not too far away -- a selfie with the Colonel in his Christmas gear is a must.

People queue in front of a KFC restaurant in Tokyo on Dec. 23: a rather clever campaign in the 70s by the company's marketing team linked their chicken with Christmas in Japan.   © Getty Images

Tokyo is famous for amazing Christmas decorations and the illumination light displays are second to none. Busloads of tourists would normally have enjoyed the Xmas lights in Roppongi Hills and Marunouchi again this year. Officious and effective attendants ensure the crowds at Midtown move along at a decent pace and yet everyone gets their smartphone snap to share on social media. Not this year.

The COVID safe Christmas Illumination guide suggested people take in the lights from the comfort and safety of their cars. This has meant diabolical traffic around the major Christmas illumination hot spots -- let's not use that word -- attractions.

People have always told me that in Japan, Christmas is for friends and at New Year you celebrate with family. It is a special time and people enjoy a well-deserved break. Normally, people would be catching the shinkansen bullet train home to see relatives. Some head to Hawaii or some such holiday spot for a short break. Not this year.

This year we have been told by a range of different people including the Prime Minister, the Tokyo Governor, and my nosy parker building caretaker, to ring in the New Year quietly and celebrate in small groups. And to "stay home." Rather easy for me as this is what I do every New Year. A visit to the temple at year-end, the shrine visit to ring in the new year, the customs and the quiet make this one of my favorite times in Japan.

It is hard for many people at Christmas, and I imagine those who normally go home are suffering the most. Likewise, my heart breaks for Japanese friends who have been quietly told by their families in regional Japan not to visit this New Year for fear of spreading the virus, and what the neighbors might say.

I am one of the lucky ones though. I get to have my two of my three grandkids for lunch on Boxing Day and will Facetime the other little one later. But before I get too festive, I had better dash. I have a board meeting to attend. Yes I know, Christmas in Japan is different.

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