Whenever my bank balance and work situation allow, I like to spend Christmas overseas.
For some reason Christmas is more meaningful when I’m thousands of miles away from home. Plus its always fascinating to discover what elements of the holiday make their way to non-Christian countries.
In 2015, I spent Christmas Day in Nikko, Japan.
I slept in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese Inn) complete with paper privacy screens, tatami mat floors and sun room.
I took strolls in the countryside, discovered the world’s quaintest convenience store:
and visited the iconic Shinkyo Bridge, said to have been created by the Gods out of two intertwined snakes.
Christmas dinner was a traditional Japanese multi-course Kaiseki meal, intricately prepared and displayed, and on this occasion, served with a side of fried chicken
(a Japanese Christmas staple).
It was definitely one of my more memorable Christmases, even if my choice of destination turned out to be a bit of an uneasy fit with the holiday.
Allow me to explain.
A two hour train ride from Tokyo, Nikko is gateway to the Nikko national park and home to Toshogu, the Shinto shrine and final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Ieyasu was the founder and first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate or Edo Period (1603 – 1867). Effectively a military dictatorship, the shogunate unified Japan and ushered in 250 years of peace and prosperity.
So, on the surface, visiting the shrine of Ieyasu Tokugawa on Christmas Day seemed fitting. Christmas being a time of peace and unity and all.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of rather extreme things Ieyasu did to achieve that nationwide harmony.
The first was removing all Western influence on Japan and beginning Sakoku, a 215 year policy of almost total isolation from the West.
The second was a total ban on Christianity.
Brought to Japan by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, the religion was viewed as a threat to the Tokugawa shogunate’s authority and ultimately the country’s stability. Under Ieyasu’s rule foreign missionaries were expelled from Japan, churches were destroyed and the Christians of Japan were asked to renounce their faith through a process called “fumie”, which involved stepping on an image of Christ.
Those who refused to give up their faith faced torture and execution while others who had been through the fumie process continued to worship in secret at great personal risk. As a result Christianity in Japan was pushed underground where it remained for almost 3 centuries.
And now that I know all this, my decision to spend Christmas Day touring Toshogu, the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the place in which he is enshrined as a deity, was a bit of an odd one.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.