Expat Thanksgiving Survival Tips

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving when you live on the other side of the planet? When you’ve finished your dinner before your loved ones at home have even started cooking it? When most people around you don’t even know the word for “turkey” in their language? (Hint: shichimencho, or 7 faced bird, if you’re in Japan).

With┬ásuch a family oriented holiday, it’s easy to get swept up in homesickness and forget all the things that we do have to be thankful living abroad. So, here are my tips for getting through Thanksgiving when you’re the only one celebrating it.

1. Start early! This past week has been completely Thanksgiving oriented, with Thanksgiving classes at school and a themed bulletin board. If you’re cooking, you’re going to have to start more than a week early, though. Start planning out the menu and looking for ingredients at least a month ahead because there’s a good chance you’ll have to be ordering some if you want to duplicate your home spread.

2. Spread the word! All of my students have been making hand turkeys and I’ve been talking it up with my friends and coworkers. Celebrating a holiday alone can be really lonely, so it’s important to make sure that people around you know about it, so at the very least they’ll understand why you’re leaving work a few minutes early to go get the turkey in the oven.

3. Get others involved! I like to bake an extra pumpkin pie a day early and bring it in for my coworkers. Most of them have never had traditional American pumpkin pie, and they enjoy trying it and sharing my culture with me. It also starts my holiday early and guarantees that I’ll be getting a lot of “Happy Thanksgivings!” throughout the work day.

4. Find the other expats! This one is pretty predictable, but even if you’re deeply immersed in your own community, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to connect with the other foreigners in your area. Besides, it’s much less work making one dish than ten!

So how am I celebrating? All my other JET Programme friends and I are heading out to a huge traditional Thanksgiving dinner! As a devoted food lover, I can tell you that I’ve been looking forward to this meal for at least a month. I’d promise pictures, but realistically the food will be in my stomach long before I remember to take my camera out!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Stone Lanterns – Nara

Stone lanterns, or Toro, like these were brought to Japan from China well over a thousand years ago. Traditionally, they are linked with Buddhist temples, with different segments representing different elements, and a lit lantern symbolizing a prayer to Buddha. The lanterns express the idea that when we die and spirits leave the physical body, the body then begins to revert to it’s elemental form.

These lanterns, in Nara, are among the oldest in Japan. You can see how the weather has worn them away.

Fushimi Inari – foxes

These little foxes are everywhere in Fushimi Inari, guarding almost all the small shrines, but are a rare sight in the rest of Japan.

Apparently, the deity Inari, to whom this temple is dedicated, is often associated with foxes. Inari is linked to merchants and successful businesses, and also to rice. After all, full warehouses of rice must be a sign of good business.

If you look closely, you can see a key in one of the fox’s mouths. This represents the key to those rice warehouses.

On the mountain I saw a lot of shops selling kitsune udon. That’s a play on words: the same word for the sweet soy based wrappers used in kitsune udon (kitsune) is also the Japanese word for fox. What really links it all together is the popular Inari-zushi. It’s a type of sushi that is rice stuffed into the same wrapper as is used in kitsune udon. That one dish then depicts the link between the god of rice (Inari) and foxes, and is also, in my opinion, delicious.

Happy New Year

(Chionin Temple, shortly after midnight)

Happy New Year!

The bells have been rung, the tangerines peeled and eaten. At midnight and the dark hours after, waves of people trek to their local shrines to pray for the new year. They toss coins in the temple donation boxes and buy omikuji, their fortune for the New Years. Bad luck gets tied to a tree or rope.

Venders set up stalls selling yakisoba, oden, karage, and other festival favorites. I waited in line to make my new year wishes, nibbling on a red bean paste taeyaki, while people watching with my little brother.

At midnight we surged forward, and the festivities began. This morning, while in a cab to Kyoto station to catch the Shinkansen to Tokyo, I could still see the lights from the stands. The streets were still crowded with celebrators.

And for the record, my luck is supposed to be relatively good next year, although my romantic relationships are expected to tank.