The Festive Season: Japan vs South Africa

The holiday season is long over. Adults have returned to work and children have started school again. So I would like to take this time to make a (delayed) post about the differences between the festive season in South Africa and the festive season in Japan – both of which are riddled with opposites:

1. Seasons

If you took geography at school, then you know that Japan is in the Northern Hemisphere and that SA is in the South. This means that the biggest and most obvious difference between the festive seasons is the actual seasons.

That’s right, while it’s hot as hell in South Africa in December and January, it’s as cold as a Popsicle stick in Japan. So having grown up in Cape Town, where we spend Christmas swimming and relaxing in the sun and News Years on the beach, I felt it a little odd to be bundled up in scarves and jackets every time I left the house. Most people in South Africa spend their festive season in shorts and T-shirts – drinking ice-cold drinks and swimming.


But in Japan it’s a different story. It’s true that this year has been unseasonably warm for winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but to a South African like me, it’s been bloody freezing. But it’s not all that bad – there are some perks to being in the cold in Japan. Firstly, although houses do not have central heating, many of the trains, buildings and shopping centres do – which means that you can easily escape the cold when you’re going for your weekly groceries. Secondly, many houses have at least one air conditioning unit that doubles as a heater – meaning that your lounge or bedroom can be toasty warm within minutes of arriving home. Thirdly, there is an amazing invention called a kotatsu that is guaranteed to keep you warm in the cold winter evenings -I’m not gonna lie, they should bring this invention to South African #WinterMustFall


2. Christmas

Much like any Western Country, Christmas in South Africa is spent with family or family-like friends. Most families and friends also exchange gifts during this time and enjoy a national holiday away from work. And although not everyone who practices Christmas is religious, the practice certainly is based on the religious tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus.

However, unlike the image portrayed in the media of Christmas snowmen and a fat jolly man in a thick red jacket, Christmas in South Africa is normally spent in the sun. Some people might make their way to church before meeting up with extended family in order to enjoy a large meal of turkey, gammon, and other delights. We crack crackers and spend our time swimming or relaxing in the sun. If you’re lucky, you might even catch Santa riding a few waves at the beach.


But Christmas in Japan is, once again, a different story. Although Christmas is still celebrated, it’s definitely not seen as a religious holiday. Nor is it a public holiday. In fact, many people still work on Christmas Day as though it were any other workday. Christmas is more like Halloween or Valentine’s Day – a time for celebration, but not enough to warrant a day-off.

This is not to say that there aren’t some traditions still associated with the Christmas season in Japan. Indeed, commercialism and Christmas music is everywhere, lights get put up all around the cities, and KFC is enjoyed by many. However, there is one crucial difference: instead of spending Christmas with family, this holiday is seen as a time for young adults to snuggle up to their girlfriends/boyfriends, or to hang out with friends. This makes Christmas more of a ‘behind-the-scenes’ holiday rather than a traditional one.


Normally Christmas time is associated more with winter than it is with summer. Many Christmas specials during this time are set in winter wonderlands where people are all wrapped up in down coats and scarves. Therefore, I had a feeling that Christmas in Japan, along with its exceptional commercialism, would feel more ‘Christmassy’, but, alas, I was wrong. Although I still had a great Christmas with someone special, it just didn’t quite feel like Christmas. I guess Christmas to me will always be set in the sun.

3. New Years

Now, while Christmas in South Africa is more of a religious holiday, New Years is not. Instead, New Years is a time to go out with friends and usher in the New Year with a bang. Or it’s a time to relax with some close friends/family and toast the coming year with a bottle of champagne. There are often fireworks and people getting raucous on the streets. Or there is a settling down to the time-honoured tradition of watching Dinner for One. There’s even the Kaapse Klopse festival that takes place on the 2nd of Jan. Personally, my favorite thing to do on New Years is go down to the beach and relax with the cool sand between my toes (after having a lekker braai, of course).


Meanwhile in Japan, New Years (Shōgatsu) is a grand and religious holiday. Many people take the week of New Years off as their winter vacation and travel to their hometowns to spend time with their families. Because New Years celebrations can go on for a few days, married couples often take turns visiting each other’s families over this period. In their hometown, many people will go to their local shrines or temples and pray for the coming year, get lucky charms, eat some warm street food, and get their fortunes. Of course, if you go to a shrine in Tokyo for the stroke of midnight, you are guaranteed to wait in a long, snaking line – sometimes for up to three hours! So you better get their early.


Just like for Saffers during Christmas, New Years is also a time for traditional holiday food in Japan. There are many types of traditional foods, but the most famous being a series of dishes known as osechi-ryori. There are many variations of osechi-ryori depending on the region, however, the majority of them contain boiled seaweed, fish cakes, sweet potato, chestnuts, simmered burdock root and sweetened black soybeans. Other popular dishes during this time is toshikoshi soba and ozoni.

Of course there are many other traditions around this season in Japan, but that’s up to you to find out more!

This year was my first New Years in Japan and as I had no family in this country, I went to the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine with some coworkers. Making sure we got their early, we all shared some hot sake (or atsuka) in the cold and settled near the front of the long line. When the clock struck twelve, everyone surged forward, and, guided by the police, made our way to the shrine to pray.


After praying, we grabbed our fortunes and some charms, and made our way to find a nice warm restaurant to eat in. Unfortunately all the places were either closed or packed with people. Luckily we managed to find a tiny back-alley Chinese shop where my coworkers and I could share our first meal of the New Year.


Even though it still did not feel like the festive season to me, I thoroughly enjoyed this New Years tradition and it was definitely worthwhile for me to have experienced something like this. I’m not going to lie, I hope that I’m still in Japan to usher in 2017.

Overall, the holiday season in Japan and South Africa couldn’t be more opposite. However, I think that they both have their merits and I reckon that a perfect holiday season would be to spend Christmas in SA and New Years in Japan.
Here’s a nice steamy gif of atsukan – a strong and hot type of Japanese sake

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One thought on “The Festive Season: Japan vs South Africa

  1. Pingback: Japanese Gift Giving Occasions – Booth in Japan

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