Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Christmas would be like. It is not a Christian country and New Year is a much more important festival in the Japanese calendar. So I wasn’t expecting to see many Christmas trees.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The shopping centres and public areas around Tokyo have their decorations up even earlier than many do in the UK and – kids being kids – everyone is excited about Santa’s arrival, presents and cake. In school we play games, make Christmas decorations and sing songs, much the same as you do. In one class, a student got the words to ‘Jingle Bells’ slightly muddled and all his classmates jumped in to tell him the right ones. You’ve got to get it right for Santa!
Despite – or perhaps because of – everything they have been through, the small people of Ishinomaki are no strangers to the Christmas anticipation. I could imagine kids in temporary housing asking their mums if Santa would be able to find them, just as my brother and I did after our family moved house late one year. The charity Free Tohoku was determined to give them a reason to smile this Christmas and so ‘let them eat cake!’ was born.
The idea was to give each family some treats – Christmas cake and cookies – as well as shopping tokens for other things they needed. Thanks to the generosity of so many, fundraising efforts were a great success. 23 December saw an assortment of friends, colleagues and Twitter acquaintances meet on a cold winter’s night at a remote station in Chiba (about 20 miles from central Tokyo). We loaded a brightly painted rainbow bus with all the essentials, including but not limited to: helium for balloons; a Santa costume; a hot water heater and – of course! – a Christmas tree. There was so much stuff I wasn’t sure there would be room for all of us, but somehow everything squeezed in and then our journey could start.
This was my first trip so far to the north of Japan and I would love to tell you all about everything we passed. But it was after midnight and motorways being more or less the same the world over, there wasn’t much scenery to speak of. Instead, it was time to try to snatch some shut-eye. We had lots of kids to entertain soon!
We woke to a gorgeous morning breaking over a much more snowy and hilly landscape than the one we had left behind. As always when I am awake at the crack of dawn, I was surprised to see how many other cars and trucks were on the road, the days in Japan start early! We had a quick wash and brush up in the service station toilets before heading into the centre of Ishinomaki, via a slightly circuitous route to the primary school hall, where we met the volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud to get everything unloaded and ready for Santa’s visit. It seemed like there was so much to do – however would we finish in time?
Many hands made light work of it all and soon the helium balloons and the cafe were up and running:
The bouncy castle was waiting for the crowds:
The Christmas tree was beautifully decorated:
And we had hung up the handmade or decorated Christmas cards sent to Ishinomaki by children in Ireland, Japan and the UK:
I had thought this way of hanging up cards was quite usual but it seems to just be a British thing as many visitors and volunteers asked about it… maybe this will start a trend next year! Much nicer than putting them away and they helped to cheer up the chilly school hall.
Then suddenly everything was ready, the doors opened and the kids arrived. The first part of the day flashed by in a blur, but there were huge queues for the bouncy castle and trampolines, as well as a craft area to make decorations, while the parents stopped for a chat and a coffee. We also had a visit from a clown who made balloon animals and swords, which came in very handy for clobbering friends:
Delicious onigiri was served for lunch and then came the moment everyone had been waiting for…
— Jamie El-Banna (@jamie_elbanna) December 24, 2011
Excitement was running very high as the kids got their gifts and treats and it was lovely to hear the hall ring with their shrieks and laughter. We sang Christmas songs, while some made beautiful thank you notes and pictures:
You can see some of the results by clicking on the link in this tweet:
More thanks from Ishinomaki… http://t.co/UxAWX50j
— free tohoku (@freetohoku) December 26, 2011
All too soon it was time to load up the bus and head back to the city, feeling exhausted but happy – as I hope all the partygoers did. To those who donated either cash or time, a huge thank you! To the wonderful team of Our Man and Our Woman in Abiko – who asked if I would like to come along – thank you so much, it was a pleasure! And to all the It’s Not Just Mud team, thanks for everything, I’ll be back before long.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Before leaving Miyagi, the Free Tohoku bus made another stop. Christmas in Tohoku Part 2 is here.