Amoeblog

Christmas in Japan

Posted by Kells, December 17, 2008 04:23pm | Post a Comment

A few nights ago while watching an old VHS copy of Santa Claus is Coming to Town I began to wonder about this whole Christmas thing. The legend of Santa Claus, according to this stop-action, puppet laden, mind-bending slice of classic holiday TV programming, is a bit dodgy in parts and down-right unsettling as a whole (and hilarious when paired with the right kind of holiday spirits). How on earth did a story like this, the story of Santa Claus, ever so increase in popularity as to reach the mutated, lofty, legendary status it entertains today? It boggles the mind! But then Christmas is just plain weird and, ultimately, up for interpretation and reinterpretation given the varied spiritual, social, economic, geographic and educational contexts that embrace it. That said, I'd like to explore Christmas the way the Japanese do it, as I believe it is a phenomenon that most Americans know little of unless you've had the pleasure of spending Christmas (or the New Year's festivities for the matter) in the biggest little archipelago on the Pacific Rim. 

Recently I asked one of my good buddies, an ex-pat who lives and works in Japan, if he'd be coming back to the good ol' U. S. of A. come Christmas. Sadly he won't be, but he assured me that his absence wouldn't hinder his warm wishes and memories of spending the holidays stateside with friends (and family too I suppose). One thing that he disclosed that has been sticking in my head is, "I have to fend off the almost daily, 'What's Christmas really like in the States?' question." What I'd give to know how he chooses to answer this question; "Oh it's like a weeks-long shopping fiasco that claims the sanity and lives of the over-worked and underpaid temporary workers of my country," I imagine him explaining to a wide eyed and wistful looking クリスマス enthusiast before losing their interest by then expounding upon the glory of salt-cured ham, home-made egg nog and football. I know my friends in Japan are missing out on some of the traditions and seasonal cheer they enjoyed growing up with, but if you ask me, they've got plenty to be merry about being so far away for the holidays. 

I wonder what the Japanese would really think about our way of doing things, however which way we do them, considering what seems to be typical Christmas doings and goings-on in their neck of the woods: mainly dinner at KFC (most families order their Christmas Party Barrels way ahead of time), followed by some delicious Christmas cake usually made of vanilla sponge cake, fresh cream, strawberries and a bit of chocolate. Maybe then you'd get out to take in a glittering electric display of Christmas lights somewhere local while J pop Christmas jams, old and new, fill the airwaves. Now, I'm not altogether sure why Colonel Sanders and Co. have flopped into the Christmas fold Far East-wise, but many seem to think it has to do with his being an old fart sporting a white, though tiny, beard. You gotta admit he looks rather dashing in a Santa suit. About the Christmas cake all I can think of to say is, "yes please." I'd like to think that Japanese Christmas cake is a spin on those yule log cakes we see here in specialty bakeries being that they're both aesthetically and tastefully holiday specific. And so very yummy without being too sweet (Icing in Japan is never of the butter creme variety, which cuts down on the holiday sugar overload). Plus, here is a not-so-fun fact about Christmas cake: it is also used a slang term for unmarried women over the age of twenty-five as Christmas cakes are always thrown out after December 25th as they are, ahem, past their prime. Christmas light displays in Japan are as over the top and Griswold family lampoon-ish as they can be here in the states, with most cities and regions having at least one really decked out landmark. I've heard that houses there aren't as illuminated as they are stateside, which is surprising to me because the Japanese seem to have adopted almost everything about celebrating Christmas minus the religious aspects, much to the relief of bakeries, KFC, department stores, and apparently Christmas tree dealers. Lastly, when it comes to Christmas music in Japan it is important to consider the flip-side of the Christmas coin, after all, there are two ways to translate the phrase "spending time with loved ones."

In Japan Christmas can actually be described as "sexy," as most of those Christmas pop songs are about meeting up with, spending time with, hurrying to get with, wondering if you'll be with, waiting for, thinking about and finally getting it on with or being forgotten or heart-broken by your very special loved one, your lover. For the Japanese Christmas eve and Christmas day are serious baby making times with October birthdays in abundance and the concurrent hearts and love notion decorations that mingle freely around and within the Christmas holiday decorations. I have seen these things with my own two eyes and still I find it a little bit freaky and more than a little bit fun. Freaky because I am of a culture that equates Christmas fun times with the power of children and their ability to believe in Christmas TV specials like Santa Claus is Coming to Town and all that it represents; here, it's a kid thing. For a nation famed both for its sense of shame as well as for its openness to (what seems like) every manner of sexual enterprise, it's funny to me that of all the nights in the year Christmas eve is singled out as the night when romantic love reigns supreme and sex is definitely a given. It's like prom night with all its expectations, dinner reservations, far-in-advance booked overnight accommodations and all. There is even a Christmas "Love Hotel" called Santa's Chapel (pictured right) located somewhere in Osaka. You might be asking yourself, "why would anyone over ten years of age want to check out (or check in to, for that matter) a place that looks like a huge, technicolor toy land of a building called Santa's Chapel?" Well, imagine having a romantic night at home with your very special lady or fella along in close proximity to the whole family. Love Hotels are certainly practical in Japan and no one thinks much of them other than they should be clean, neat, nice and, in some cases, themed places to escape to for love and privacy by the hour or by the night. Don't get me wrong, I think Santa's Chapel is bizarre, but it serves its purpose (all the year round apparently). I also think Love Hotels are still a thing to be gawked at, especially the ones with the head-turning decor and the names, names, oh so ridiculous names. But I digress...

Oh yes, music. Japanese pop super (read: cute boy) ensemble Exile has a new Christmas single out this year. Well, actually it's just a Japanized version of (another cute boy ensemble) Wham's "Last Christmas." Here it is in both forms (for the purpose of twisting your mind), Wham's classic holiday video with Exile's Japanese vocal version played over it:



I have a few personal favorite J pop holiday tunes though they're a bit dated. Actually all my favorite Christmas songs are dated, but I suppose that's the nature of Christmas tunes whether they transport you back to a simpler time or, unfortunately for the Scrooge McBurgermeisters out there, annoy the shit out of you. In the spirit of spreading more Christmas cheer here is a really great holiday song by Tatsurou Yamashita titled "Christmas Eve" (the English version -- the original Japanese version is great too) played over the world's most uncool (and possibly Russian) Christmas-y looking dance video:



What about a real J pop Christmas video? Well, check out this cute-as-shiz Christmas single and video clip from the dressed-as-twin-dancing-Christmas-trees J pop duo Halcali singing "Strawberry Chips" (I think Double DIPtheoreya might be ripping this off for next year's Christmas is the Best show!):



How about a truly dated live performance of a truly crazy sounding Christmas J pop jam -- "Pink Christmas" by the all dancing and sometime singing girl trio Mi-Ke? You got it! In all its over staged, vocally strained, pink stained glory:



Now, how about something scary like a giant girl group of J pop super stardom doing a medley of Supremes covers for a nationally televised Japanese Christmas special brought to you by Ed Sullivan and a guy named Sanma who is as famous for his teeth as he is for his laugh. I give you the very tip top of excess in Japanese Idol Pop contrivance: Morning Musume -- Christmas 2003. I dare you to watch it all:



If that didn't put you off your sugar cookies then I'm sure you can stomach the hard-rockin' nightmare of an over-the-top Japanese Christmas presented in this next video by lady-boy comedian Yakkun Sakurazuka titled, "ChristMaster" -- this is for her:



Lastly, here is a typical Japanese KFC Christmas commercial followed by my favorite J pop band (Unicorn) doing my favorite J pop holiday song, "雪が降る町:"





Merry Christmas ya'll, wherever you are!


(Wherein winter records receive writings.)

Posted by Job O Brother, December 16, 2008 11:32am | Post a Comment

It’s finally chilly in Hollywood. I mean, I still have my French windows open wide, but it’s about as cold as it ever gets, with breezes blowing from my hometown in the north, Nevada City, where loved ones are covered in white blankets of snow. (That’s a metaphor – probably very few of them have bed-sheets constructed of crystalline water ice.)

My friends in Nevada City, Jaime, Alison and Dan made a snowman. I don’t get that pleasure here. I suppose I could make a clumps-of-dying-grass-cigarette-butts-and-dog-feces man, but who has that kind of time? I have a blog to write!


Here's a picture of the snowman my friends made.
The best part will be watching him slowly melt over the next couple weeks.

My choices in music are always influenced by weather. When it’s hot city in the summertime, I’ll gravitate towards artists such as Stephen Malkmus, Thin Lizzy, or Sly & The Family Stone. If it’s a rainy day, you can bet some Siouxsie & The Banshees will be trilling from my stereo. I look out the window and see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse trampling the Hills with all the fury of Heaven and Hell as they take the stage for a final battle in which every human soul will come to greet its eternal home in either the awesome glory of the Almighty God or the foul depths of Hell as lorded over by the king of wickedness, Satan, and more often than not I’ll play a little Burt Bacharach. Because it’s always a good time for a little Burt.


Don't make me over.

What do I play when it’s cold outside? Of course holiday music would be appropriate, but I never, never, ever listen to Christmas music when I’m alone. I’ve haven't asked myself why; it’s just something I noticed. There’s something somehow… lonely and… I don’t know. I guess I feel like people who listen to Christmas music alone are the same people who don’t get married – just get more cats. Am I wrong? I’m open to the possibility. And if you’re someone who does listen to Christmas music alone and I’ve offended you, you should write and set me straight. You owe it to your future kittens.

One thing I like to hear in winter are precious, 1960’s folk/pop lasses from Great Britain. An obvious choice is Marianne Faithfull, who, before descending into a (brief and thankfully conquered) foray into heroin, made some fabulous recordings in what was at first a somehow smoldering soprano (her voice, like Joni Mitchell’s, would eventually become lower and lower thanks to devoted smoking habits).


Another artist I fancy is Barbara Ruskin, who recorded perky songs about cats roaming streets and postal workers drinking tea and isn’t it lovely how horses and flowers and dreams and look a red balloon God Save the Queen. I’m paraphrasing here. She actually wrote much of her own music, which was unique in her time. Unfortunately, I’m unable to find any video clips of her music, or even some sound research on her. Why? Well, here’s a link to a song, anyway.


"Someone's stolen my guitar! I shall write a very cross song about it, indeed!"
Barbara Ruskin in her hey-day

Mary Hopkin I like for a little while. One side of one album is about all I ever want from her. Paul McCartney produced her debut album, which was one of the first releases from Beatles-founded Apple Records, and it included one hit which you may recognize from its constant play in most cafés which utilize cable radio:


Sandie Shaw is good fun. Her choices of songs are often grin-inducing, as she lends her feminine coolness to such records as “Lay Lady Lay” and “Sympathy for the Devil.”


She would enjoy a new generation of fans when Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths encouraged her to perform with them and cover their material.

Petula Clark is undoubtedly more square than the above artists, but I would be remiss not to include her here. The 1970’s would see a more polished, pop sound from this English superstar, but in the 1960’s she could smartly warble a folksy ditty. Of particular note are her French language recordings. They tend to be more produced and money than any Yé-yé contemporaries, but still hold some delight for me.


Lastly, there’s Burt Bacharach. While he was mostly never a British woman singing folk/pop, you’ll recall (if you were paying attention) that it’s always a good time for a little Burt…


Music like this makes me crave cocoa. No small feat, considering I don’t like cocoa. Odd, I know, but true. It’s too much like soup to me, and I don’t like soup. Soup spelled backwards is “puos.” Gross! I don’t eat puos. That’s just disgusting.

St. Lucy's Day (Sankta Lucia)

Posted by Eric Brightwell, December 12, 2008 10:28am | Post a Comment

Tomorrow is St. Lucy's Day, a holiday primarily observed in Northern and Central Europe, and the Upper Midwest. If it seems odd for Lutherans to observe a St. Day, it's because it sort of is. Then again, as with most Christian observances, the holiday's roots have nothing to do with saints or Christianity.

St. Lucy's Day begins with a young girl clad in white with a lit crown of candles positioned in her hair in a fir wreath (or lingonberry or whortleberry twigs). She leads a procession of candle-bearing girls with coffee, ginger snaps, glog and St. Lucia buns (lussekatter). Sometimes there are boys in conical hats known as "star boys." The children sing Lucia songs which provide a welcome break from Christmas Carols.


Falling near the longest night of the year, the symbolism of young maidens bearing light-bringing fire and bounty isn't too hard to figure out, but if you must know the official Christian version of events, then here you go. Officially, Lucia helped the early Christians in Italy who hid in the catacombs. In order to see, but needing to bring food in her hands, she contructed a wreath of candles. Yeah... right.


The truth is that before the light-bringing Lucy was invented, Germanic people and their neighbors observed "Lussi Night." The figure, Lussi die dunkle, was a dark, evil female spirit that came on the 13th of December to punish those with uncompleted tasks. Similar (and perhaps to related) to Lillith, the Mesopotamian storm demons, Lussi also preyed upon children. In fact, a whole mob of Lussiferda (Lisle-Ståli, Store-Ståli, Ståli Knapen, Tromli Harebakka, Sisill, Surill, Hektetryni and Botill) would go around an enter houses through chimneys to kidnap children. Sound vaguely familiar?



In Italy, where St. Lucia is said to have lived and died, children leave sandwiches for her and she rides a flying donkey, giving coal to bad children and... flour, sugar or salt to the good. Now that's an incentive! They don't, however, eat anything made of wheat flour on this day, munching instead on cuccia (a desert made of wheat berries) and biscotti made to look like eyeballs.

In Hungary, groups of children sing ancient fertility songs and, if given gifts of pears, bless the houses' poultry. If not rewarded, they have to power to make all the chickens die... except one... which is left blind.


A newer tradition is for college students to party all night long on St. Lucia Day, since it's one of the last chances to get together before going home for Christmas.



A NOCTURNAL UPON ST. LUCY'S DAY,
BEING THE SHORTEST DAY.
by John Donne


'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
            The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
    I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
    Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
            Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
    Were I a man, that I were one
    I needs must know ; I should prefer,
            If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
    At this time to the Goat is run
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

(In which Job reveals holiday party hints.)

Posted by Job O Brother, December 9, 2008 11:25am | Post a Comment

"Ho ho ho! Who needs a pancreas?"

It’s only December 9, and already my body is exhausted from all the sugar and booze it’s ingested. I know, oh my readers, why Santa is a fat man. Santa, in fact, is probably suffering with diabetes. It would explain last year when, as he was trying to stuff the life-sized, life-like Annette Funicello robot I had asked for into my San Francisco 49ers stocking (a last-minute purchase at Target – it was either that or a Hannah Montana stocking that had a glue-gun scar); Santa was working his magic but, in-between “ho ho ho” he was mumbling about polyuria, polydipsia and polyphagia in a manner not so jolly.

That last sentence was epic. Somewhere, the ghost of Proust just got a boner. Can I say boner on the Amoeblog? I’m not well.

My boyfriend, Corey, and I just hosted our annual Christmas party. I was in charge of the food. I went for a “dip” theme. That is, rather than merely offer chips & salsa or chips & guacamole, our dips included:

•    Pumpkin pie & fresh whipped cream dip, served with cinnamon/sugar pita chips
•    NY Cheesecake dip, served with thick graham crackers
•    Chocolate fudge dip, served with fresh & dried fruit
•    Peanut butter / mustard / honey dip, served with pretzels
•    Red wine dip, served with Pfeffernüsse

Our pal Kamran also contributed queso & tortilla chips, because some of the guests were Texan, and I guess their tradition demands queso at every gathering, otherwise they… secede or something.

I was also in charge of the music. For this, I created a playlist on my jazz-specific iPod and dumped a week’s worth of X-mas tunes. But, and here’s where I turn this into a piece of advice for those of you assembling such a list, I recommend you buffer all the Christmas records with some other music. I like a ratio of 50/50. This is to ensure that no one has to endure four versions of “Jingle Bells” in a row. If chosen well, the non-holiday music won’t impede on the feeling, but embellish it. I stuck to jazz – down-tempo be-bop, mostly – as I find it blends well with my Yuletide tunery. Examples:

Ben Webster



Lester Young


Another perfect addition to a holiday set-list is any recordings by the
Swingle Singers...


I was careful not to have any unChristmasy items contain lyrics. Nothing could be tackier than if, as your guests swagger mirthfully around the punchbowl or flirting beneath the mistletoe, than for Lady Day to start a macabre rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Beyond that, you’d be surprised how cozy a recording (sans lyrics) of the “Eulogy for Rudy Williams” can be, when accompanied by spiked egg nog and a stewardess under each arm.

I’m sorry. That was a ridiculous digression. Of course I meant to say flight attendants.

The next morning, Corey and I fell out of bed around noon and went immediately to fellow Amoebite Aaron’s party. They were serving pumpkin pancakes to guests on an ambitious scale. For a brief moment, I worried as to how I would be able to dip the pancakes without making a mess, but then my brain reminded me of the time before my party, when utensils like forks and spoons reigned supreme, and I relaxed.

That night was the Amoeba Holiday party. It grieves my heart that I didn’t attend – it was the first time I missed a major Amoeba event in over four years! But it was the 30th birthday of our dear friend Jenny. 29th or 31st birthday can be ignored – the big three-oh cannot. So, it was off to Manhattan Beach to celebrate.

Suddenly, a fire-breathing dragon flew down from the skies, scorching cars and toppling skyscrapers, as an army of robots marched across the cityscape!!!


Not really, but I suddenly worried that my blog was getting boring.

Is this how Mrs. Dalloway would have read if it was written in 2008?

Anyway, going back to the party food – I’ve learned that many people don’t know how to make whipped cream from scratch. For those of us who, like me, were raised in the Swiss Alps by a bunch of portly dessert chefs, this skill comes as naturally as braiding our golden locks or yodeling. The rest of you can learn by reading ahead…
Procure yourself some heavy whipping cream. You can find this at any grocery store, ideally in this refrigerated section. (In fact, if your local grocer doesn’t keep it in this section, I recommend shopping elsewhere.)

Size-wise, you’ll usually have two options: pint or quart. I suggest you go for the quart, because it’s much more common to not have enough delicious, fresh, whipped cream than the alternative. (Think about it – have you ever heard this sentence: “Oh no! Too much delicious, fresh, whipped cream!” …Exactly.)

Next, pour the heavy whipping cream into a bowl. NOT a stainless steel bowl, however. Stainless steel is bad juju for whipping cream, for reasons I don’t know, perhaps because I spent high school science class hidden in the theatre lobby, drinking screwdrivers from my Thermos and reading Anne Rice novels.


Using an electric mixer, beat the heavy whipping cream until, well, it becomes whipped cream. But BE CAREFUL – if you whip it too long, it suddenly becomes butter. Corey made that mistake once and, without realizing it, ate a bowlful of fresh, sweetened butter. He spent the next two weeks digesting it.

Once it’s whipped cream, mix in the sweetener of your choice. Mostly commonly, powdered sugar is used. (Don’t use granulated sugar, unless you want slightly crunchy whipped cream. PS – You don’t.) For myself, I think the finest sweetener for whipped cream is grade-B maple syrup.

I never measure the sweetener – just go by taste. Start with a little and keep adding until the flavor gives you a boner. Can I say that? I have a slight headache. Am I still writing?

The army of robots killed mercilessly, until they were conquered by my life-sized, life-like Annette Funicello robot. And that’s why we celebrate Christmas. Hosanna in Excelsis Deo.

Guests are usually delighted and impressed by homemade whipped cream. Unless it’s the portly dessert chefs that raised me. They tend to be overly critical. My robot will show them. Oh yes, dear readers, VENGEANCE WILL BE MINE!!!

Merry Christmas!

christmas records you should own

Posted by Whitmore, December 25, 2007 10:20pm | Post a Comment
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