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When I found myself in the fanciful, food court-like basement of the ultra-posh Matsuya department store in Tokyo, surrounded by genteel salespeople and shimmering glass cases filled with pistachio eclairs, I was seized by my natural inclination toward klutzy disaster. I stared at the tower of delicate hand-decorated truffles, the well-manicured cookie displays.
Department store food halls, known as depachika, are a special kind of subterranean paradise specific to Japan. Floors below endless collections of Stella McCartney jackets and Prada purses, depachika serve as the Fendi of food spaces—especially in the Ginza neighborhood, where Matsuya sprawls on the fashionably-hooved sidewalks. Whether you’re searching for taro gelato, a bottle of super-premium sake or the finest dried squid in the land, this is where specialty grocery shopping is made into a visual spectacle as much as a culinary one.
As I surveyed the waves of macarons and madeleines, nervously repeating an anti-clumsy mantra in my mind, I gravitated toward the one thing that it was clear I couldn’t break or destroy: a glossy catalogue. It was the annual catalogue of Christmas Cakes being sold by the department store—and it was stunning.
Christmas cakes are the pièce de résistance of beautiful Japanese confections, the likes of which are prettier and more intricate, I’d argue, than most of the creations Paris can gussy up. At first blush, though, it might seem a little bit odd that a Christmas cake exists at all in the country.
“Less than 1% of Japanese people are Christian, so it’s definitely not like people are celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday,” my Tokyo-based friend laughed when I asked about the cakes. She quickly pointed out that Christmas marketing, twinkly public decorations, and the cakes seem to get increasingly over-the-top with each passing year. “Christmas cakes are something everyone seems to do.”
“The Japanese love celebrating holidays, even occasions that are not their own, like Halloween and Christmas,” says Yukari Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo. (I took part while I was there, too. I found myself stockpiling Japanese Halloween baked goods like ghoul-shaped savory Challah filled with semi-sweet pumpkin custard and mallow-speckled cookie puffs wearing miniature marzipan witch hats.)
“It's funny, but many families will eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas and finish the meal with a Christmas Cake.”
As early as mid-October, high-end hotels and 7-11s alike unveil their Christmas Cake options to eager celebrants, who then pre-order a baked treat for pickup (typically) sometime in the days leading up to Christmas. The cake originally was a fairly basic combination of three components—whipped cream, strawberries, and sponge cake—with whole, hulled strawberries standing tall on top as decoration. Today, though, no one is holding back when it comes to intricacy.
One Christmas cake from the Hikarie department store is shaped like a two-tiered latticework present, topped with a tangle of icing made to look like peach-colored ribbon. Another boasts a snowy night vibe, right down to sugar snowflakes and shards of varq, or edible silver. At the Park Hyatt Hotel (of Lost in Translation fame), a wildly non-traditional, vibrantly colored “buche tropicale” cake features a mango and passion fruit mousse filling, Earl Grey cream, and a coconut biscuit foundation.
Even the Christmas Cakes from Lawson’s—a chain of convenience stores—are downright delightful. This year’s creations are roll cakes modeled after the ultra-popular regional mascot Kumamon, a rosy-cheeked black bear, and his equally kawaii (read: cutesy) animal friends. The decorative pieces of the cake are packaged separately, so families can get fully interactive with the cake and play build-a-bear at home.
While the ornate baubles and bejeweled trappings on the outside of Christmas Cakes may be vastly different now, the interior has largely remained the same. Cut into most Christmas cakes and a cross-section will reveal the original three ingredients—strawberries, whipped cream and sponge cake—arranged in sweet-and-orderly sedimentary layers. It’s tradition, after all.
But out of all the pastry dreams in the world, why did Japanese culture fall head-over-heels for what is essentially a soup-ed up version of strawberry shortcake?
The draw of mid-twentieth century Americanization.
Today it might be laughable to think of a time when Japan would look towards the U.S. for inspiration—culinary or aesthetic. From the sleek, pointed noses of the country’s super-speedy trains, to the amount of detail that goes into even the simplest of meals (looking at you, convenience store bento boxes), the level of care shown at every turn is remarkable to an American eye (or at least, my American eye).
But this wasn’t always the case. After World War II, the Japanese viewed America as a beacon of both style and prosperity, and by the 1950s, the Christmas cake had become one way for the country’s burgeoning middle class (and increasingly urbanized culture) to reflect that they had achieved American-like levels of success. Butter, sugar and fresh fruits (like strawberries) were all scarce during the war and the decades preceding it, making sweets an ultimate luxury all but reserved for the societal elites. The Christmas cake—which required these ingredients in their freshest, peak forms—quickly became a token to showcase not only an increasingly Westernized aesthetic, but the decadence of using such coveted ingredients.
“Corresponding with the absorption of American ideas and ways of lives [after World War II], a new form of ceremonial food appeared as the [Christmas] cake," writes Hideyo Konagagya in his paper, The Christmas Cake: A Japanese Tradition of American Prosperity. “The distinctive identity of modern Christmas celebrations in Japan create an environment for Japanese to detach from the routines of everyday life and experience an American milieu. Dramatized by showy commercial advertisements...Christmas is a major public event in urban industrialized Japanese society.”
And while the inspiration is American, the Christmas cake is an edible ritual that’s wholly Japanese. Plus, symbolically, it’s not hard to see how the cakes, with their round shapes, white backdrop and dots of strawberry, mirror the colors and design of the Japanese flag.
“Christmas itself is a commercial event [in Japan] and the cake is part of the celebrations,” says Magdalena Osumi of The Japan Times, who notes that the old school, famous confectionary Fujiya was the first retail store to sell the Christmas cake as it’s known today. “I think [the cake] attracts mostly young people interested in foreign cultures.”
The Christmas cake concept has also been entrenched into Japanese culture in some more, er, unusual ways. Osumi points out that the term “Christmas cake” holds a less-than-stellar slang definition in the country as a reference to women over the age of 25 who are past their “fresh date” for finding a husband. “When I came to Japan and I was exactly 24, turning 25, and some people I encountered would warn me that I might not find anyone because of my age, which I found really odd.”
More than likely, whether due to the current butter shortage in the country, or the fact that Tokyo is several thousand miles away, a real, live Christmas cake might not be in your future this year. Never fear. If you’re really jones-ing to get in the Japanese Christmas spirit, simply pick up your cell phone: there are not one, but two, Christmas cake emojis just waiting to be dialed in, providing a little piece of full-circle digital sweetness.