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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

Ho, ho, homesick

Foreigners miss home comforts at Christmas


Santa's checkin' his list twice to see who's been naughty or nice and foreigners from all corners of the world are wishing their stockings will be filled with things they can't find in Japan.

A big turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, Yorkshire pudding and eggnog are rare delectable delicacies sought by salivating gaijin hoping to treasure a taste of home during the holiday season.

Though the Japanese have increasingly been integrating traditional Christmas dinners into their year-end festivities, the local substitute is usually a bucket of KFC (kinda like turkey) with fried potatoes, a drumstick bought at a supermarket or pizza delivered by Santas on scooters.

More Japanese families are putting up little fake trees and some children hang stockings on their bedposts. Lights line the streets, tinsel hangs in storefronts and carols have been blasting from every speaker in Tokyo since the end of Halloween.

But still, something just doesn't seem quite right.

"It's not the Christmas stuff, like decorations and carols, that I miss, but the real Christmas ambience," says Hungarian Barna Resko, his words trailing into thoughts likely about snow nestled on trees, excited children with twinkles in their eyes counting down the days on their advent calendars, or rosy-cheeked neighbors after an evening of ice skating on the lake snuggled up to a mug of apple cider or hot chocolate with marshmallows and surrounded by the smell and warmth of wood burning in the fireplace.

No matter where in the world one comes from, 'tis the season that draws a visit from the deepest feelings of nostalgia.

"In particular. I miss the Mediterranean-style family gatherings with around 20 to 30 people," says George Demetropoulos from Cyprus. "Houses are big so there's no problem of space. The menu is very rich, like Greek food. Everybody's smiling and happy, giving and taking love.

"It is a time to forgive and be forgiven. It's a festive atmosphere of eating, drinking, singing, dancing and playing cards, with the children in their own worlds playing their games. It can go on until the morning hours."

A survey of random foreigners in Tokyo shows the things Demetropoulos mentions are at the heart of what most miss about home at this time of the year.

"Most foreigners go home for Christmas so there isn't that build-up," says Raja from Lebanon. "The build-up is because foreigners are trying to wrap things up to go home. If they don't go to their home country, they go on a holiday to celebrate the season."

And when it's the night before Christmas, and what's left of the foreigners are nestled all snug in their beds, with visions of Vegemite dancing in their heads, nobody can really expect good ole St. Nick to pop through the air con vents into their room and pull from his sack . . .

Old cheese, low fat ice cream, pretzels, catfish, grits, steak sandwiches, nonwhite bread, American candies, and "decent horrible-for-you Mexican food" -- the things many Americans crave from home.

Or "good olive oil, good wine and sweets made from real butter and good flour," says Demetropoulos, mirroring the yearnings of most Mediterraneans.

"Deodorant, tampons, undies, bras that aren't padded, and pants with butts," chime Australians Amber Forsyth and Alice Nicholls, on behalf of most foreign women.

"I have to go to a marine boat shop to find anything big enough to wear," jokes Norwegian Bjorn Utgard, whose longings for large clothes and shoes were repeatedly made by men from numerous countries.

And for the Muslims it's food with no pork. "I want to eat 'halal,' " says Ali Tasbasi from Turkey, referring to food deemed kosher by the Quran.

"Japanese restaurants use too much pork, so it's not easy for me to eat out. This is a Buddhist country but they use more pork than Europeans. I also miss nice beef, real beef."

Besides food, family and friends, it's the intangibles that people can't easily get their hands on in Tokyo.

Most commonly mentioned were wide open spaces, the sounds of people singing in the street, proper streets with names and addresses and the spirit of Christmas.

The fat man in the red suit, famous for his charity to children across most of the world is reduced to an advertising gimmick in Japan where department stores urge patrons to partake in a commercial festive event (which is also wrapped in commercialism worldwide, but elsewhere holds onto some of the soul and spirit within).

Notable "Nihon no" gifts at this time of the year are prepackaged beer, sweets or ham given as "oseibo," year-end presents meant to pay back favors to bosses or colleagues.

Besides oseibo and bonenkai, this holiday is left to lovers.

Rather than sharing magical myths of elves and flying reindeer, Christmas Eve in Japan fosters a fairy tale of the day for romantic miracles when women and men confess their love to each other.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, an overnight stay in a nice hotel at a 60,000 yen-plus fee.

Only 9.7 percent of Japanese believe Christmas is the most important event of the year and spend accordingly, cites the Japan Consumer Marketing Research Institute, compared to 48.1 percent choosing New Year's Day and 32.4 percent preferring birthdays. Those who selected Christmas were either couples or families with children under 12.

"At home we have the love of family and friends and the love of God," says Demetropoulos. "Christmas in Japan means the love of a girlfriend, or a nice evening with somebody who happens to be alone as we may be."

Christmas in Tokyo

Traditional grub:
* Fujimamas, Harajuku. 3,045 yen; Sat-Sun; Phone (03) 5485-2262
* Good Honest Grub. 6,500 yen; Fri-Sat-Sun; Phone (03) 3406-6606
* The Hobgoblin, Roppongi, Shibuya, Akasaka; 2,000 yen: Sat; 4,000 yen, 8,000 yen: Sun; Phone: (03) 3568-1280
* The Pink Cow, Aoyama. 3,800 yen; Sat-Sun; Phone (03) 3406-5597
* Sonoma, Shibuya; Sat-Sun; Phone (03) 3462-7766

Non-turkey traditional dinners:
* Croatian at Dobro, Kyobashi; 7,800 yen and 9,000 yen; Sat-Sun; Phone (03) 5250-2055
* German at Zum Einhorn Platz, Roppongi; 6,000 yen and 8,500 yen; Thurs-Sun; Phone (03) 5563-9240
* Hungarian at Zsolnay, Roppongi; 10,000 yen plus 1,000 yen music charge; Thurs-Sun; Phone (03) 5775-0071
* Indian at Maharaja, Shinjuku; 3,900 yen, until Sun, (03) 5352-7858
* Mexican at Fonda de la Madrugada, Harajuku; 8,000 yen; Fri, Sat and Sun; Phone (03) 5410-6288

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