First Shrine visit of the year – Hatsumode

New Year’s is one of the most important holidays on the Japanese calendar. During the Edo period and the old way of counting, everyone was one year old at birth (because they counted the time you were in the womb) and aged one year on New Year’s day. The beginning of a new year symbolizes a fresh start and people do a thorough cleaning of their homes before stepping into the new year. By the way, 2017 is the year of the Rooster and this year’s element is fire.

After having celebrated at a Buddhist temple everyone heads to a Shinto shrine to pay their first respects of the year. This may happen right after midnight, as shrines are open with food stalls and ready to sell good luck charms. If you go during the day you will definitely spot people dressed in kimono amongst the thousands of people (sometimes even a million!) queueing to pray for the shrine. Many people will be dressed in kimono as a formal gesture to the shrine or temple.

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The origin of Hatsumode

The first shrine visits on New Year’s date back to the Heian period (794 – 1185) when the head of the household would pray at the family’s shrine in a secluded room. During New Year’s a god is supposed to visit each and every one of his/her shrines to give blessings. People wanted to lessen the burden on the gods by going out and visiting the shrine. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), praying on New Year’s changed from a secluded room to a public shrine. People would pray at the shrine nearest to that year’s eho(恵方), or “lucky direction”. You can find your nearest shrine on this useful eho map. You have roughly until the 7th of January to visit a shrine.

Hatsumode was a way to celebrate going from the cold winter to the milder temperatures of spring. The coming of cherry blossoms and growing plants signals a new beginning. When Japan entered the Meiji era (1868) the Japanese government decided to have a standardized calendar instead of the ever-changing Japanese lunar calendar (1873). This made New Year’s day fall in the middle of winter instead of the beginning of Spring.

Charms and Prayers

Besides paying respect, people buy charms and bring their old ones so the temple can burn them. It is unlucky to throw away a charm as a god is believed to reside in it. You can bring any charm you don’t want anymore to a temple and they will professionally take care of it for you.

Old Charms

Buy a mikuji(fortune telling paper) from the Miko(Shinto priestess) and see if this year will be a good one. At big shrines they usually have English mikuji for foreigners, so don’t worry if you can’t read Japanese. If you have a paper with bad luck you tie it to a branch near the shrine, preferably a pine tree. The words for “pine” (松 matsu) and “wait”(待つ matsu) sound similar. Your bad luck will wait by the tree instead of staying with you.

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According to an old belief, you should not make a detour when returning home from the shrine. In order not to “spill” any of the good luck, you need to take the shortest way back. If someone died in your family last year you are advised not to visit a shrine either, as “death” is seen as impure. Each shrine and temple has a different view of death, so some shrines might have no problem with this.

Where to visit?

For the best luck, it’s good to follow your eho and visit the nearest shrine. After all, this god is closest to your home and can thus provide the best protection. If you want to visit a popular shrine, Rakuten Travel has made a list of the best shrines to visit for 2017 (Japanese only). Here is their top 10:

1) Imado Jinja – Asakusa, Tokyo (luck, wealth, love and finding a good partner)
2) Shinsoji Temple – Narita, Chiba (traffic safety, business related wealth, safety)
3) Atsuta Shrine – Nagoya, Aichi (safety for your home/family, business prosperity)
4) Nikko Toshogu Shrine – Nikko, Tochigi (longevity, safety for your home, realization of one’s earnest wish)
5) Samukawa Shrine – Samukawa, Kanagawa (traffic safety, protection from all directions, warding off evil)
6) Sensoji Temple – Asakusa, Tokyo (business prosperity, safety for your home, academic performance)
7) Ise Grand Shrine – Ise, Mie (safety for your home, easy childbirth)
8) Izumo Taisha – Izumo, Shimane (marriage, safety for your home, good luck)
9) Fushimi Inari Taisha – Kyoto, Kyoto (prosperous business, good harvest)
10) Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine – Dazaifu, Fukuoka (academics, passing an exam, finding employment)

If you’re still unsure of where to go, you can check out this shrine guide for Hatsumode (Japanese only).

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How to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Japan

The Japanese way of celebrating New Year’s is very different from Western countries. New Year’s is possibly the most important day of the year and is usually celebrated with family or good friends. We’ll take you through a typical day leading up to the first day of the new year.

Write Nengajo

During the old days people would visit everyone they were grateful to for the past year on the first day of the new year. Nowadays everyone lives quite spread out so postcards became the new way to express gratitude. Japan takes nengajo very serious and if you send your cards before the deadline the trusty Japanese post office will make 100% sure your card arrives on New Year’s day.
Sometime during December the post boxes will have a separate nengajo slot. Read about how to write nengajo.

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2017 is the year of the Rooster

Eat Soba

These noodles are eaten on the last day of the year and are called toshikoshi soba. Their connection with New Year’s Day has different origins. Examples are the belief that because soba is cut easily you can easily let go of your hardships, long noodles help you “cross over” to the new year, soba “absorbs” the evil in your body and many more… Every region has a different reason.
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Prepare Osechi

Cooking on the first 3 days of the new year is considered bad luck, so families prepare a feast on or before New Year’s Eve. Every ingredient has a special meaning and can be difficult to prepare for a whole family, so nowadays most people order osechi boxes.
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Get your ornaments ready

After cleaning your house to welcome the New Year’s gods it’s time to start decorating. These decorations can also be set up in advance (but not too far) to ensure a “clean break” between the old and the new year.

First you’ll put up a Kadomatsu, an ornament with three bamboo shoots stuck in pine branches. The shoots represent heaven, earth and humanity. The gods live in the kadomatsu until January 7th. They are taken to a shrine and burned to send the spirits back to their realm.
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Then it’s time to get your Kagami Mochi and put it next to your Shinto altar. These are two stacked round rice cakes topped with a mikan (mandaring orange). Traditionally they used a citrus fruit called “daidai”. This fruit is usually not eaten because of its bitterness and has the ability to stay on its branch for several years if it’s not picked. Thus the fruit became connected with the wish for “prosperity for many generations”. The rice cakes represent the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

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Watch a singing competition on TV

This might seem strange, but over the years this has become a popular New Year’s tradition. NHK’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen, or Year-end Song Festival, is a singing competition between a red and white team. These teams consist of popular idols and celebrities and is considered an honor to participate in. It is the top-ranked music event of the year.

Visit a Buddhist temple

The singing competition ends just before midnight so you have enough time to go to your nearest Buddhist temple. The monks sound the bell 108 times, symbolizing all the human desires. The sound of the bell is meant to cleanse your spirit.
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First shrine visit and the first sunrise

The first shrine visit of the year is called hatsumode and many people choose to do it right after midnight. Shrines have prepared enough sweet sake to toast the new year and food stalls are set up until the early morning. The first sunrise is called hatsuhinodeand many people stay up late or wake up early to experience this beautiful sight.

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Step Back in Time: Kakunodate’s Samurai Residences, Akita Prefecture

Take a relaxing stroll around Kakunodate to immerse yourself in history.

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While many traditional Japanese buildings have been lost due to fire, weather and deterioration from age, the houses along Samurai Street have stood undamaged for over 300 years. Known as the “Little Kyoto of Tohoku,” the town maintains the refined, elegant atmosphere of old Japan.

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Hiburi-Kamakura is a one-of-a-kind traditional event held in February. People swing a bale of burning straw to wish for safety in the coming year.

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Kakunodate
Hours: 9am – 5pm (Varies depending on the residence)
Access: 20-min walk from JR Kakunodate Station (Akita Shinkansen), or 60-min bus ride (Airport Liner) from Akita Airport.
Admission: Varies depending on the residence

Pictures © Kakunodate Tourist Association

Revisiting Traditional Architectural Wisdom: Thatching

Thatching is the traditional Japanese craft of building a roof with dry vegetation like straw to achieve warmth and sustainability while also saving energy. In Tohoku, there remain many thatched roof houses that resemble a poetic retreat from the modern day. With stunning mountains as backdrops and beautiful creeks gently flowing, this is the ultimate destination for meditation and relaxation.


Tono Furusato Village

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Often used as a shooting location for movies, the nostalgic looking village also doubles as a tourist attraction where visitors can experience traditional Japanese craftwork like bamboo art and pottery making. The outgoing and friendly staff is dedicated to helping everyone get the most out of their visit.

You can sample home-made sake known as Doburoku at a traditional winter festival, Dobekko Festival.

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Instructors at Furusato Village are known as “Maburitto members,” or “protectors” in the Iwate dialect.

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Cultural Experience Activities at Tono Furusato Village
Village Hours: 9am-5pm (Mar. to Oct.), 9am-4pm (Nov. to Feb)
Access: 25 minutes from JR Tono Station by bus
Admission: 540 yen (Adults), 320 yen (Children)

Pictures © Tono Tourism Association Tono Furusato Village


Denshoen Park

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Traditional farming, authentic culture and local wisdom are carefully preserved at these charming thatched roof houses. Here, you can listen to Japanese folklore, try your hand at making Japanese crafts and savor local specialties.

Oshira-sama is a household deity unique to the Tohoku region. Made with 30 cm long mulberry sticks, Oshira-sama statues usually come in pairs, with the male figure representing a horse and the female a human.

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Cultural Experience Activities at Denshoen Park
Hours: 9am-5pm (Last entry at 4:30pm)
Access: 25 minutes from JR Tono Station by bus
Admission: 320 yen (Adults), 220 yen (Children)

Pictures © Tono Tourism Association Denshoen Park

New Year’s Day celebrations in Japan

After the New Year’s Eve celebrations, it’s the real deal. Japanese people go back to their family home during the holidays and spend time together eating and talking.

Enjoying company and food

You could say that New Year’s in Japan is like Christmas in Western countries. Most important is to get together with your family and enjoy a nice meal together.

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After returning from your first shrine visit people usually read their nengajo, New Year’s cards. If you are with family you get together to share your Osechi, New Year’s lunch box. If you are with friends or on your own you usually share a meal as well. Even if you don’t have a fancy osechi box, almost everyone eats ozoni. This is a soup with mochi and the preparation varies from every region and every family. Try this recipe to make your own ozoni.

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During the first seven days of the new year, there is a “cooking ban”. Traditionally this is to appease the fire god Kohji. This god would get upset if you made fire early in the year and cause natural disasters. Over time this became more of a “rest period” for housewives who worked so hard in preparation for the new year.

Gifts

Besides beautiful nengajo, delicious food and family reunions there are also gifts to be given. If you’re 22 years or younger you’re in luck, you get an otoshidama! This is money in a fancy envelope given by your parents and grandparents. The amount depends on the generosity of your family…and probably also if you’ve been a good kid the past year.

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For adults who no longer receive otoshidama there are fukubukuro. These lucky bags contain secret items worth at least twice the price of what you paid. Every shop makes a limited amount of fukubukuro so people often line up well in advance to get a deal at their favorite shop. If you’re lucky bag hunting, here’s a handy guide. During the fukubukuro period (1st – 2nd of January) you can also find winter sales in many shops. So try your New Year’s luck!

Yokote Kamakura (Snow Huts)

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Yokote Kamakura, Snow Huts in Yokote, Akita Pref.

Playing in snow huts is a popular pastime in winter for children living in the heavy snowfall areas. They make snow huts called “Kamakura ” in which they play games and eat traditional delicacies.

Yokote City in Akita prefecture is known for the Kamakura, and the locals have been celebrating Yokote Kamakura Festival for more than 400 years. The festival is held every February where about 100 snow huts and a number of snow creations are built on Kamakura-dori Street, in front of Yokote City Hall branch office and at Yokote-jo Castle. A wide range of events are held during the festival including Kamakura making and mini-kamakura illuminations.

Access:
(1) The JR Ou Honsen Line to Yokote Sta., and then walk 10 min.
(2) 3 min. by bus from JR Yokote Sta. to Yokote Chiikikyoku-mae Bus Stop.

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Sapporo Snow Festival

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Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, Snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido

The festival, the biggest in scale of this kind, started in 1950, and has become one of the most popular events in winter for now. Approximately 230 snow creations and ice sculptures are exhibited at three sites, mainly at the Odori Site with enormous snow creations and many attractions, at the Susukino Site with fantastic ice sculptures, and at the Tsu-dome Site with the huge playground where children and adults can play in snow. http://www.snowfes.com/english/index.html

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Access:
(1) The JR Hakodate Honsen Line to Sapporo Sta.
(2) About 50 min. by bus from Shin-Chitose Airport to Sapporo Eki-mae Bus Terminal.

Join the Kase-dori Festival and bring in a prosperous year

If you happen to visit Yamagata prefecture during February, don’t miss the Kase-dori Festival held in Kaminoyama City.

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Participants wearing straw coats dancing around the neighborhood.

Yamagata, one of the northern prefectures of Japan, is known for its snow laden climate and great ski resorts such as the Zao Onsen Ski Resort. The average temperature during February hovers somewhere around zero degrees (32℉), so I think you would agree that going outside without a decent coat or warm clothes is probably a bad idea, right?

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Half-naked young men waiting to become Kase-dori.

Well, the people who are participating in the Kase-dori Festival would beg to differ. Because, the main participants of this 350-year-old festival are wearing nothing but a simple straw coat called a Kendai and a loincloth underneath.

They are dressed as Kase-dori, a bird-looking creature that carries the spirit of God. The bird symbolizes a few different things: fire prevention, good harvest, and good fortune.

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The festival begins at Kaminoyama Castle where a group of Kase-dori dance around a bonfire. Then, they start making their ways into the neighborhood. Spectators bring a bucket of water and sprinkle (or dump) it on the Kase-dori to pray for fire prevention and a prosperous year. The outside temperature is slightly above freezing, getting a shower of ice cold water would be, well, excruciatingly cold I imagine…

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Spectators drenching the Kase-dori with water.

And don’t forget, if you see a strand of straw falling off from a Kendai, tie it in your hair (if you have a dark hair) or give it to a nearby girl who has a dark hair. Because the legend says that those who tie the straw from the Kase-dori in their hair will have a lifetime of lush and radiant hair.

At the castle and throughout Kaminoyama City, there are numerous stalls selling regional food and Kase-dori related goods. The locals, both kids and adults participate in the festival.

Dancing with the Kase-dori, trying out the local flavors, or dumping a bucket of water on a mythical creature, taking part in a regional festival like this one, is a great way to experience the local culture.

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Kids help out as well, selling Kase-dori charms and goods.

[ Information ]

Address: Motojonai 3-7, Kaminoyama, Yamagata
Access: A 12-min walk from Kaminoyama Onsen Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Date: February 11, 2017
Hour: 10am to 3:30pm

7 Great Winter Activities in Northern Tohoku

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1. Get sporty

Winter in Northern Tohoku is a paradise for those who enjoy winter sports. Majestic mountain ranges carpeted in fresh powder snow provide a number of great ski hills all over the region. Most ski hills, provide rental equipment and lessons, so it’s a great place to pick up skiing as well.

Read also:
Top 4 Central Japan Resorts

2. Get festive

Despite being famous for their grand summer festivals, Tohoku has a list of amazing winter festivals as well. Yokote is known for its Kamakura Festival where people can eat and drink inside snow domes, while artistic snow sculptures at snow festivals in Towadako and Iwate attract huge crowds every year.

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Yokote Kamakura Festival
Access: Yokote is 1 hour on JR Ou-honsen line from JR Akita station

3. Walk in Nature

The beech forest of Shirakami has a special beauty in winter. Go snowshoeing with a great guide and enjoy nature to the fullest. If you are up for something more authentic, try a “jifubuki” (ground snow storm) session and discover the harshness of Northern Tohoku winter first-hand.

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Trekking in Shirakami
Access: 1 hour bus ride from JR Hirosaki station

4. Indulge in Great Winter Food

Winter, like any other season, is full of seasonal delicacies. ­There are a number of local hotpots that let you enjoy a variety of local products in one pot. Another way to stay warm in the cold winter is by drinking atsukan (warm sake). Match locally-brewed sake with native dishes as they tend to create a wonderful harmony with each other.


Dinner at Lamp no Yado
Read also: Tohoku Secluded Hot Springs: Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen

5. Warm up in Hot Springs

“Yukimi buro”, literally meaning “snow viewing bath”, is what the Japanese indulge in during winter, as soaking in hot springs at an outdoor bath is one of the best ways to enjoy the tranquil beauty of snow. Fortunately, since scenic hot springs are scattered all around Northern Tohoku, you can enjoy “yukimi buro” in various regions during the snow-covered winter.

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Tsurunoyu at Nyuto Hot Springs
Access: Approx. 1 hour bus ride from JR Tazawako station

6. Submerge in Local Music

The Tsugaru region of Aomori is known for its Tsugaru jamisen, a 3-string instrument widely performed around the region. Its lively and rhythmic music is unlike other Japanese folk music, and sounds more like rock. You can enjoy a performance at various places in Aomori, including restaurants and bars.


Enjoy 30-min. performances at the ASPAM tourist center, offered twice daily
Access: An 8-min. walk from JR Aomori Station.
Read also: Training Through Tohoku (1): The Must Do List

7. Witness the Vast Nature

The northern tip of Honshu is lined with amazingly scenic landscapes along the coast of the Sea of Japan. To fully enjoy the view, hop onboard the Resort Shirakami, a special train where you can enjoy astounding scenery at every turn. You can also enjoy a shamisen performance and local folk songs as you enjoy the harsh yet breathtaking beauty of nature from within the warm train.

Resort Shirakami
Access: From JR Akita or JR Aomori station
Website: JR East Joyful Shirakami

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Tsugaru Shamisen performance

In Harmony with the Seasons: Zoni

text & coordination/ Rieko Ido, photo/ Hajime Watanabe, decoration/ Junko Kibe

The pictured zoni dish is a soup of chicken dashi stock with simmered root vegetables,
to which roasted mochi and fragrant mitsuba (cryptotaenia japonica) has been added.

Zoni is the name of a soup containing mochi that is traditionally eaten in Japanese households on the first day of the New Year. Depending on the region, the ingredients can vary, and the soup may be a clear soup, soy sauce-based, or made with miso or white miso. But whatever the style, zoni is a combination of a soup containing several vegetables.

Preparations for a New Year’s feast traditionally begin on December 31. Considering that the first day of the month had been called tsukitachi (rising

of the moon), a dark, moonless night was important for resetting everything, and eating zoni on the morning after that also meant that the body was being prepared to accept new things.

Burying yourself in the diversity of a full year—despite being surrounded by an array of happenings, the people of ancient times must have focused their wisdom and consideration for their health into these tiny servings of zoni, praying that they could continue to live on.

 Eating mochi, where the god of the New Year had been believed to dwell, first thing in the New Year, is an act that represents receiving their energy. For the Japanese, this god had no been doubt a manifestation of their ancestors.


Rieko Ido
A graduate of Kokugakuin University, researcher of ancient Japanese customs and knowledge, conducting technical analysis on findings to apply them to modern lifestyles. Currently teaches at Tama Art University.

Kakizome: The First Writing Of A Year

Happy New Year!

Out with the old and in with the new. The beginning of the year is a perfect time to decide what we want to accomplish for that year.

So what is your New Year’s resolution?

Spend more time with your family? Learn a foreign language? Travel more? Advance in your career? Run a marathon?

Whatever it may be, there is proven evidence that if you write down your resolution on a piece of paper you’re more likely to achieve that goal. I guess Japanese people have known this phenomena for a long time, since they have a special custom of writing their New Year’s resolution with a calligraphy brush on the 2nd of January. This tradition is known as Kakizome: the first writing of a year.

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In the distant past, Kakizome used to be practiced only among imperial household members. But thanks to temple schools and literary education, this tradition became popular among common people during the Edo period. Nowadays, Kakizome is a favored New Year activity among the young and old alike.

There is a phrase often used in the world of Japanese calligraphy: Sho Ha Hito Nari (calligraphy reveals personality). This notion is quite common among Japanese people and contributes to a strong emphasis on having beautiful handwriting.

Calligraphy is a mandatory subject in elementary school, where Japanese kids learn not only how to write letters beautifully but also the correct writing posture and ways to hold and maintain brushes properly. Quite often, teachers assign kids to do Kakizome over the New Year holiday.

The practice of calligraphy is not in vain since there are many opportunities to show your handwriting skills. For example, many Japanese companies still require handwritten resumes from job applicants. Beautiful handwritten resumes almost always give a good impression.

Here are some popular auspicious words you can try!

希望:Hope

平和:Peace

旅:Journey

夢:Dream

喜:Happiness

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Kakizome was, and still is, a special ritual where people clear their mind and focus on expressing their determination using beautiful lettering. To prepare for Kakizome, one has to get a fresh water, pour it into a square basin, grind charcoal gently until its fresh scent wafts into the air. Once everything is set, he or she dips the tip of the calligraphy brush into a pool of fresh ink then makes a steady stroke. Every line, dot, stroke and stop is consciously made.

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Caption: Don’t own a calligraphy brush? Not to worry! There are a handful of affordable calligraphy pens available at any stationary store in Japan.

 

When you are done with Kakizome, hang it on the wall. The bold strokes on a piece of pristine white paper might give you the determination and will to accomplish your New Year’s resolution. Or perhaps it’s just a beautiful piece of art to look at.

 

A New Year marks a new beginning. I hope it brings you lots of joy and success.

 

 

 

In Harmony with the Seasons: Toshikoshi Soba

text & coordination / Rieko Ido, photo / Hajime Watanabe
text & coordination / Rieko Ido, photo / Hajime Watanabe
The tradition of eating soba on the last day of the year – Dec 31, also called omisoka – has been around in Japan since the mid-18th century, or the mid-Edo era. This came to be known as toshikoshi soba, or year-crossing soba. Eating soba right before the new year is meant to symbolize cutting off or puting an end to all bad events that happened within the year, hence the choice of soba, as it can be easily cut by chopsticks. On the other hand, the fact that it is long and thin is meant to symbolize longevity and a sustained prosperity for the family.
 In addition, the soba plant also embodies resilience and sturdiness as it survives even in cold climates and recovers quickly from damage by wind and rain with just a little sunlight, plus, it is known to be good for cleansing the blood and lowering blood pressure, hence it is said that eating soba helps to clean the body from the inside to welcome the new year.
There is another interesting saying that goldsmiths in the Edo era would, on the last day of the year, use a ball made from
soba flour to gather all the gold dust that had gathered within the year off the tatami mat, and this association between soba and wealth accumulation made toshikoshi soba popular.


Rieko Ido
A graduate of Kokugakuin University, researcher of ancient Japanese customs and knowledge, conducting technical analysis on findings to apply them to modern lifestyles. Currently teaches at Tama Art University.

A Taste of Sh旬n: Christmas, A Time For…Fried Chicken?

For most part of the world that celebrates Christmas, a roast turkey is the main star of the Christmas meal. But in Japan, Christmas means a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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There are various theories as to how this tradition came about – either from a very successful marketing campaign by KFC years back, an innate Japanese preference for all things smaller and more compact (stemming from a perception that bigger objects tend to taste bland with a less refined taste), or even perhaps the uncanny resemblance between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus…

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Ho,ho,ho…goes Colonel Sanders, laughing all the way to the bank.

Orders are taken for the KFC bucket around two weeks before Christmas. And, in a bid to get a piece of the Christmas pie, convenience stores and supermarkets have also started frying up chickens in zest.

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If you don’t want to queue at KFC, just head to the combini.
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7-11 (left) and Circle K Sunkus amost those joining the fowl play.

So, if you haven’t already placed your KFC orders and don’t fancy a long wait for fast food, you know where to go for your Christmas Fried Chicken. Or, you could just go cold turkey.

Here’s wishing all our readers a Merry Christmas!