A final few hours in Japan, I returned to my budget ryokan after a long day trekking the streets Tokyo, in the downtown district of Minowa. All set for a quiet evening of packing, I sat sipping a cup of green tea, my nose in a book, when a man with Mongolian features strode into the lounge. "We need Father Christmas, will you be Father Christmas?" I blinked, a little stunned, "What, now?" I asked. "Yes, yes, Father Christmas, we have costume, give you free Japanese meal, must come now!" he said with a sense of grave urgency.
Well, how could I refuse – it was almost Christmas after all. He walked me down the road to another local hotel, and a lady welcomed us in, "Thank you, thank you, thank you", and with a little help, I donned the familiar red jacket and trousers, hat and white beard. Still, I looked too skinny to be Santa, so we stuffed a cushion into my jacket, tied into place with an obi. I necked a cup of sake, which was as strong as paint stripper, and was led down the streets of downtown Tokyo, dressed like Santa, with a big sack of presents for the kids, and then abandoned outside a small Japanese restaurant, with the sage advice "Merry Christmas!"
It was a surreal moment, and as I slid open the door, and stepped into the bright light of the restaurant, it was as if I was stepping onto a stage. For a moment, time seemed to stop. More than a dozen little faces looked up at me, the guys behind the bar looked around, beers in hand, and the children’s mothers looked at me expectantly. Delivering an almighty "Merry Christmas Everyone!!" I threw in a few ho-ho-ho’s for good measure. The whole place erupted, with cheers and applause. The children queued patiently and politely for their presents – a selection of Hello Kitty Easter eggs! I was sat at the mothers’ table who didn’t speak a word of English. Fortunately the manager had taken her honeymoon in Vegas, and spoke a little English. Plates of sashimi, oyster tempura, and rice cakes were placed before me, as I tried to explain that my stomach was an artificial one, and that although everything was very 'oshi' - delicious, I couldn’t possibly manage it all!
A little girl approached me with a pencil and notepaper, and it was explained to me that she wanted Father Christmas’s autograph. As I obliged, the other children, utterly star-struck, waited in line for their own dedications, their mobile ‘handy’ phones held aloft, posing for photographs with Santa.
It turned out that the manager had been looking for a gaijin - foreigner to dress up as Santa all day, and had been standing outside the local subway station trying to find a suitable (and willing) volunteer. I was introduced to the family, her husband 'thank you, thank you', and wizened old mother who was the head sushi chef. Sitting with the mums, we managed to stumble through a conversation of sorts, as they giggling behind their hands. "Where you from?” "Japan, vacation or business?” "You single???"
The Christmas cake was brought out, in the traditional fashion, on a tray with candles. Everyone was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Did they want to me to cut the cake? Hand out the slices? I was handed a pair of chopsticks, and taken to the children’s table. With a few more ho-ho-ho's to the eager faces, the candles were lit, and a dozen children blew them out, before unsnapping their chopsticks, and piling into the cream cake in a feeding frenzy. I grabbed my own chopsticks and joined in, plucking at the strawberries and creamy cake and shoveling it down like a good Santa ought to!
Finally, the mothers instructed their children to sing a Japanese song. The moment was very ‘kusai’ – cute, that is, until the song finished, and everyone asked me to sing! Oh gawd, a Karaoke Christmas! My mind went utterly blank, Jingle Bells? Forgotten it! Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer? Forgot that too. Then, I remembered, "We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, good tidings we bring...." I stumbled through a rendition, reaching the end of the song with a tidal wave of relief. Hurray! Again, the restaurant whooped and applauded.
I was Father Christmas, albeit a Santa with chopsticks!