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Deutscher Weihnachtsmarkt Hiroshima: Bringing German Christmas Spirit Downtown
Deutscher Weihnachtsmarkt Hiroshima: Bringing German Christmas Spirit Downtown
Christmas these days is a holiday celebrated worldwide, whether the locals are Christian or not, though it gets a lot more care in countries where Christianity is prevalent. This is especially the case in European cities, where traditional Christmas markets are grandiose affairs that are anticipated throughout the year, and for which no expense is spared. We should all be aware that Japan likes to imitate modern Western holiday traditions (e.g., Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas), albeit with a secular and consumerist twist. Consequently, as Christmastide approaches, many Japanese cities will set up some sort of marketplace event in the city center, with bigger cities having multiple holiday setups sprinkled throughout their major hubs.
These Japanese Christmas markets are fun, modern, and make the locals excited for the 24th of December, and while they are different by a long shot compared to the traditional markets from which they drew their inspiration, so long as people enjoy them and companies profit off of them, who cares, right? In our peaceful city of Hiroshima, the resident German community cares enough to ensure that if a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) happens, that it ends up being the most traditional and European market the locals have ever laid eyes upon. This seasonal event usually takes place on the weekend preceding Christmas Eve and doesn’t happen on Christmas itself (just like in Germany), and is the closest Hiroshimarians can get to a real Weihnachtsmarkt without giving up an arm and a leg for a round trip plane ticket to Deutschland.
Of course, it’s not just the people themselves putting on the event, as the Christmas market has quite a few sponsors, most notably Hiroden (the company responsible for our city’s streetcar network). Because of this, under normal circumstances when the Weihnachtsmarkt Hiroshima is held in multiple locations, one of those locations will always be the MaxValu supermarket right by the Hiroden headquarters building. On account of the subsiding pandemic, this Christmas event was held at only one location, and always the largest: the base of the Urban View Grand Tower building in Kamihatchibori. Other venues for German-style markets in the past have included Motomachi Cred Plaza, the wide-open space outside the Pacela shopping mall, as well as the central hub area in the Shareo underground mall. The dates for the Weihnachtsmarkt this year were Friday, December 16th to Sunday, the 18th, exactly one week before the former emperor’s birthday, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.
‘Twas the Night Before
The Weihnachtsmarkt gets the liveliest on Saturday, but since I was anxious to see it after it was called off the previous two years, I decided to drop by on Friday night to scope out the site. It was for the most part similar to what I remember back in 2019, save for the fact that there was now a guarded entrance where staff took visitors’ temperature and asked them to sanitize their hands with alcohol before entering the market. I happily obliged and was waved into the Weihnachtsmarkt, where festivities seemed to already have kicked off.
What visitors will notice about Hiroshima’s Weihnachtsmarkt right off the bat is that unlike your average holiday marketplace event in Japan, which usually just has cheap, temporary white tents for hosting vendors, activities, and exhibitions, the market here utilizes handmade, wooden huts, the same that one would find at any German Christmas market worth its weight. As if that wasn’t authentic enough, the German locals in Hiroshima contributed to the construction of said huts, and can be found staffing some of them, even in multiple market locations. In addition to food vendors and shops selling candles, wooden toys, and the like, it would be remiss for a Christmas market to not include a “Krippe,” or a nativity scene, on the grounds. As far as Western countries are concerned, such a display is quintessential to public Christmas events, and they get pretty fancy in Germany, especially inside the major churches.
I was a bit on the fence as to which vendor to patronize for dinner, but that indecisiveness was quelled when I saw which hut had the longest line. SUZU Café, one of the restaurants on the first floor of the Urban View Grand Tower building, sets up shop in one of the wooden huts at this Weihnachtsmarkt every year, and since their food is already adored by the locals, their hut gets the most customers. On top of that, this location was slated to close on the 30th of December, so might have also contributed to the additional patrons that weekend. That said, I got in line as fast as I could and waited my turn to try their take on European winter comfort food.
For a temporary food stand, SUZU Café had quite a long list of items to offer, and the fact that the hut was situated right in front of their actual restaurant meant that diners could elect to simply eat indoors rather than wait out in the cold for their food. Personally, though, I believe that feeling cold is one of the joys of winter and necessary to enjoy piping hot foods and beverages to their fullest. The options ranged from Berliner currywurst to roast chicken legs, but I went with a bowl of pot-au-feu, a French-inspired beef and vegetable stew that has healthy, hearty, and just what I needed to combat the cold that night. Thankfully, there is ample seating outdoors for those who eat from the food vendors, in the form of stone benches and cubes that are always outside the building (complete with temporary picnic tables), and since people tended to leave right after they finished eating, finding a spot for myself was no issue at all. Had I arrived earlier that night, I could’ve caught the first few performances on stage, but alas, all I could do at that point was enjoy my food while looking forward to what shows I would witness tomorrow.
Saturday, December 17th, would be the best of the three days of the Weihnachtsmarkt, as I had a lot more time to enjoy the event, ran into plenty of familiar faces, and above all else, because the special holiday streetcars would be running up and down the street. I met a friend for lunch downtown, and from Hatchobori we walked north all the way to Urban View Grand Tower, which by the time we arrived was already crowded with visitors in the holiday spirit. The first thing we did was check out all the huts selling trinkets and foodstuffs, trying some free samples of snacks we ultimately didn’t buy, and having a look at the exhibition hut full of pictures illustrating the historic bonds forged between the cities of Hannover and Hiroshima. Since it rained on Friday night and the benches were still wet by Saturday afternoon, that heater in the center proved most useful for those who had no choice but to wet their rear ends while enjoying holiday cuisine and wanted to dry their pants in a jiffy.
Before you ask, yes, I was one such visitor to have a damp rump as I sat down to sip on some Kinderpunsch, the non-alcoholic equivalent of Glühwein (mulled wine), a classic Christmas market staple. I’ve been behind the scenes before to help out with cleanup, so I know the Glühwein served at Hiroshima’s Weihnachtsmarkt is an authentic, imported product, but the Kinderpunsch is no more than apple, grape, and orange juice mixed in varying quantities and heated to the same temperature so that minors, drivers, and religious folks can have the same German Christmas experience. Either beverage comes in a limited-edition mug bearing a design of this year’s Weihnachtsmarkt; customers put down an additional deposit when purchasing the beverage that they get back by returning the mug so it can be washed and reused. If, however, the mug tickles your fancy, you also have the option of simply keeping theirs, but those who want a clean souvenir can simply tell the staff they wish to take home a mug, and the staff will trade you a brand new mug for the one you just used. I did that during a previous Weihnachtsmarkt when the mug was shaped like a boot, but as this year’s design was not boot-shaped, I simply returned the mug after downing my punch.
All the while, I had the pleasure of watching Ami and Chihi, a duo consisting of one keyboardist and one vocalist, perform on stage. Both were decked out in winter garb and Santa hats, wowing the crowd with familiar tunes from cherished films like Pirates of the Caribbean and My Neighbor Totoro, as well as classic Christmas carols like Jingle Bells. After all these years of living in Japan, I’m still not used to Christmas songs in Japanese, but a good singing voice is good.
When Ami and Chihi were done with their musical numbers, there was a twenty-minute intermission during which visitors could use the restroom, buy more food and drink, or do anything else until the next performers were ready to take the stage. The two ladies were followed by the Hiroshima Junior Marimba Ensemble, a bunch of talented kids who mesmerized with their harmonious percussion prowess. Their colorful uniforms almost made them look like elves, but they would occasionally don other costumes, such as when one boy dressed up as a spy while his bandmates played the James Bond theme song. As the sky started to dim, the crowd at the Weihnachtsmarkt got larger and more passionate about the performances, but my friend and I left the scene at this point in the direction of the special streetcars.
Only a select few get the privilege of riding either the festively decorated Christmas streetcar or the sleek, fancy Train Rouge (French for “red train”) for free, and those riders were selected via an online lottery held in advance. Out of all the applicants, only 72 are given the honor of boarding either streetcar, and since the Christmas streetcar and Train Rouge each have four departures, successful entrants are randomly assigned a time to ride one of the journeys. Yours truly actually won a spot on the Train Rouge, and since I was allowed to bring one companion (groups of two or four can be accepted, depending on how you apply), riding the Train Rouge was the true reason we hit up the Weihnachtsmarkt that Saturday. Of course, the food, drink and entertainment were excellent too, but we spent a lot of time simply killing time in the area. Approximately ten minutes before our departure, I was instructed to show my winning ticket confirmation email to the staff, and then stand in line to board my vessel, and all while, the two special streetcars carrying passengers on preceding rounds was making me eager to see if the Train Rouge lived up to its hype. I was taking pictures of the running trams the entire time, but the lights from the Christmas streetcar as well as the lack of light in the sky were not helping with the photo quality.
Eventually, the time came for us to board the Train Rouge, which compared to the Christmas streetcar wasn’t that elaborately decorated, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Whereas the Christmas streetcar has a gaudier and more child-friendly exterior, the Train Rouge is more sophisticated, and when it runs on other special occasions riders are sometimes served food onboard. All winning applicants were assigned to a table; ours was Table D, closest to the driver and right by a window decorated with modest Christmas stickers. That night, the streetcar course started from Shukkeien-mae and cruised up north to the Hakushima terminus, went down south past the Weihnachtsmarkt all the way to Hatchobori, then circled back to Shukkeien-mae. To amplify the Christmas atmosphere inside a holiday vehicle that wasn’t the Christmas streetcar, there was an acoustic guitarist near the entrance strumming and singing Christmas carols while the Train Rouge was running its lap.
Moment of Joy: Make the Yuletide Gay
The guitarist was Japanese, but his pronunciation of the English lyrics was still decent, so I thoroughly enjoyed his singing voice. One nitty-gritty thing that I’m pretty sure only I noticed was when he was singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the line “make the Yuletide gay” came up. He substituted the word “bright” for “gay,” like that word was taboo even though it’s just a song lyric and most of the Japanese audience wouldn’t pick up on it anyway. Nevertheless, the ride was a much-needed moment of respite from the elements outside, and I consider the privilege of being able to ride the Train Rouge a Christmas miracle in and of itself.
Performances at the Weihnachtsmarkt were still going on by the time we disembarked, and in fact were drawing even more spectators as the night progressed. We could’ve stayed to enjoy the market and shows at night, but my friend had another event in mind. I knew that Dreamination on Peace Boulevard was going on simultaneously, but what made that illumination especially appealing on December 17th was yet another holiday event overlapping that: Cosquerade 2022. Cosquerade is a cosplay event that happens periodically throughout the year, but even December—the weekend before Christmas—cosplayers from the Hiroshima area converge on Dreamination to have magical cosplay photoshoots with each other.
With Christmas being only one week away, there were a lot more visitors on Peace Boulevard than usual, even for a Saturday night. Compound that with Cosquerade, and you’ve got both kids and grown-up visitors geeking out over seeing their favorite anime and movie characters in the flesh. I realize I mention this in every cosplay-related article, but it can never be said enough times: COSPLAY IS NOT CONSENT! If you take a picture of any cosplayer that night, do make sure to ask permission to take the photo, and then ask permission to upload it to the Internet before you actually do so. The only cosplayer who kindly posed for me and gave consent to be photographed and have her likeness posted on this site was the woman above dressed up as Anna from Frozen, who was a friend of my friend.
Besides offering a second round of holiday scenery, Dreamination that night was interesting given the number of familiar faces I inadvertently ran into. Without any prior plotting, I spotted a couple friends of my own as well as the old man who cosplays as Master Roshi that I met back at ItsuAni in November 2021. We spent a good amount of time catching up over some hot beverages outdoors before returning to the illumination, where scenes of normal visitors in street clothes being bewildered by the cosplayers provided additional entertainment. As Cosquerade came to an end (but Dreamination was still going on), the staff members—friends of my friend—went around the event site, letting people grab handfuls of candy from a bag as a Christmas present. They were giving out only a few pieces at a time before, but as they were getting ready to go home, they wanted folks to take the remaining treats off their hands, to which I happily obliged.
When it comes to feeling the traditional Christmas atmosphere, the most recommended course of action is to fly to Europe to experience the real deal, but those who cannot afford that at least have the Weihnachtsmarkt in Hiroshima. The fact that this market always happens mere days before Christmas is perfect timing, and even though I have been to real German Christmas markets in the past, the one here is Hiroshima pleases me every single year. Hiroshima’s Weihnachtsmarkt truly has something for guests of every age demographic: traditional goods for the older adults, restaurant-quality fare for young couples on dates, and flashy toys and streetcars for the children and children-at-heart. The Japanese take on Christmas may not be a completely accurate replication of what is found in Western countries, but if anything, that means it’s more unique, and if tourists spend Christmas in Hiroshima, Japan, they can simultaneously celebrate it in an European and Asian fashion, a new tradition found almost nowhere else.