After last week’s brief dip into the Australian version of the Christmas season (ladies in billowing kaftans dining al fresco, the odd halfhearted attempt at lighting along the trunk of a palm tree and tinny carols playing in local shops) I was worried I wasn’t going to get my Yule groove back but fortunately the letters HND (Haneda – Tokyo International Airport) featured on my itinerary late last week. Although for 11-plus hours I had to endure the shocking experience that British Airways has become (thankfully, Japanese carrier ANA has announced it will soon swap services from Narita to Haneda), the prize at the end of the journey was sunny weather and a proper, delightfully perverted sense of the Christmas season.
Where Christmas has been all but extinguished in many of the key markets that gave rise to its commercialisation in the first place (US, Canada et al) and been replaced by bland, catch-all “holidays”, the Japanese have turned it into a shopping festival that not only makes the tills tinkle all over the country but has also become a magnet for Asian tourists looking for an excuse to spend.
All over Aoyama and Ginza, hordes of Indonesian, Taiwanese and Thai visitors could be seen loading up liveried Toyota Alphards (deluxe minivans) with purchases from Mitsukoshi, Tomorrowland, Uniqlo, Beams and other high-profile retailers. Come nightfall, groups were out in force to snap the illuminations in Marunouchi and Roppongi Hills and enjoy pop-up Christmas markets (German, and Finnish–themed) from Shibuya to Akihabara. As my colleague Helen said: “How strange and amazing that we have to fly all this way to feel a real sense of it being Christmas.”
On Friday evening we officially got into the swing of the season with a party in Aoyama that involved DJ Satosy on the turntables and clients and colleagues gathered for a few cocktails. Saturday was largely devoted to working through my Christmas list – a task that looked very daunting when I set out at 9am and had me grinning by the time I walked out of Isetan department store’s Shinjuku branch 12 hours later with everyone taken care of and all purchases perfectly wrapped.
Later, after a very delicious dinner at the LIFE son restaurant and equally tasty pancakes at Number A (all readers of this column who are frequent visitors to Tokyo should add both to their lists), a group of us made our way to a pair of tiny bars in Shinjuku Ni-chome for a few more drinks. We sipped shochu in a boutique-cum-bar that specialised in vintage ceramics and glassware while a few floors down we were treated to an impromptu, jazzy carol session by a host of talented regulars.
Not to be confused with the karaoke session that was going on one floor above, this tiny bar’s staff of two were just as skilled at playing the flute/harp/piano/violin as they were at pouring whiskey sours. Among the crowd (the bar could hold about 15 people – bartenders included) was the very talented Ryutaro Makino, who belted out sets of Christmas classics with other guests joining in to back him up – vocally and on the assorted instruments that hang from the walls. By the time Makino-san made his way to the exit at about 3am, it was time for most of us to find a cab for a snappy dash back to the hotel to pack and then head to Haneda.
Over the past few months I’ve coached my colleagues in the fine art of fighting jet lag by following the tried and tested STP (straight to plane) strategy that allows you to go direct from bar to gate via a hotel pit-stop and land in London completely rested and ready to put in a full day at the office.
On board the 777 back to London most of us settled in for a slumber-filled flight and felt fortunate that it was only during the final three hours of the flight that the toilets and sinks backed up, rather than during the first three.
When we touched down at Heathrow, we heard that a BA flight out of Narita (also carrying colleagues) had had to turn back after an hour in the air, after what looked like smoke in the cockpit.
“The perfect solution would have been both problems on the same aircraft,” remarked one colleague, suggesting that they could have used the water bubbling up from the sinks to deal with the issues in the cockpit.
Safely through border control and customs, we fanned out in preparation for the final week in the office. With two days left at HQ, we just have the company bash in London, a client dinner in Toronto, a Christmas lunch in Zürich – and then it’s three weeks off in the mountains. All that’s left to say is “Merry Christmas” to all the loyal readers of this page.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule