As I was riding my bike home from school the other day I was surprised to see a group of my high school students standing outside the local station market. They were wearing Santa hats and handing out fliers to passersby. I stopped to inquire and was promptly asked: “Give money! Donation please!” I took a 100 yen coin from my bag and asked what the donation was for. They told me of the upcoming “Kawamoto Illumination” – an annual event in which Kawamoto residents celebrate a unique, semi-Americanized Christmas. I was intrigued and promised to attend on the evening of December 9th.
As the event approached I noticed many of the high school students staying after classes to don Santa gear and dance to pop music. I was told by another teacher that they were preparing for Kawamoto Illumination. My interest was piqued.
The evening the event was scheduled to take place a group of teachers (including myself) walked together to the town square. There were less than 100 people gathered in the small square – comprised only of two benches, a large tree and part of a sidestreet. The sidestreet was blocked off and a stage erected for the upcoming dance performance. I could hardly wait.
Until the time arrived, however, I was entertained by a children’s game that was running on stage. Two high school students holding large posters bearing the marks of “O” and “X” were positioned at opposite ends of the stage. Another high school student stood in the middle of the stage with a megaphone and read statements related to Christmas. After each statement, a large group of children standing in front of the stage would run to the “O” side of the stage or the “X” side of the stage depending on whether or not they believed the statement to be true or false.
After dark the stage was lit up with Christmas lights and my well-practiced high schoolers took the stage in full Santa attire. The same pop song I heard prior came blasting through the air and the next few minutes were spent in silent admiration of high school students’ enthusiasm towards anything involving pop music and holidays.
At the end of the song the stage lights were extinguished and the crowd, en masse, turned to face the tree in the middle of the town square. I was not quite sure what to expect, though I had my guesses…and sure enough, a chant began: “10! 9! 8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1!!!” and the tree lit up brilliantly – covered in long strands of multi-colored Christmas lights. Then, slowly but surely, I heard the voice of Mariah Carey melt through the crowd as the stage speakers began to play “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Amidst cheering and smiles and plenty of photo-taking, folks began to head back towards the stage to retrieve a free cup of zenzei (sweet bean and sticky rice soup) or butajiru (pork soup). Nothing tops an event like free food – especially feel-good, warm-your-heart food on a chilly winter eve.
Thus the Christmas season had officially begun in Kawamoto. As I walked home that night I was surprised to find my nearest neighbours’ home covered in Christmas paraphernalia – from a progressively-lit choo choo train to a giant plastic Frosty the Snowman. I gave a shout of “Hontoni Amerika mittai! Nazukashii!” (“It looks like Christmas lights from home!”) as I passed by.