I love any excuse to use an oxymoron, but the truth of it is, that we have had to adapt old Christmas traditions to a newer, possibly better, version in order to survive Christmas in Japan. One of those traditions is the all important Santa visit. After the long and intense search to find a suitable Santa, thankfully a successful search, we started the newer tradition of taking a road trip every year during December.
The trip is to visit the Santa I have identified with most as reminiscent of my younger years and the only one I know of in these parts that is in a grotto. And while it is one of our most pleasurable Christmas experiences, it is a lot more hassle than days of yore when, as a child in Ireland, we had a choice of Santa in a grotto only a short car ride away. In Japan, we have to travel across prefectures and dozens of miles for that pleasure. This year in particular there are a lot more places you can visit Santa in Saitama and a lot of those Santa are from the North Pole direction, but they are usually brief visits in shopping malls in a wide open court without the intimacy and privacy of a personal visit with Santa. We prefer to take the road trip for the right atmosphere, in the right setting and more privacy and time with Santa Claus.
Our road trip brings us to Nasu in Tochigi. In fairness, Nasu is only an hour and a half from Northern and Western Saitama so we are quite lucky. Some people in Kyushu and Northern Tohoku have to travel literally hundreds of miles to queue in a shopping mall courtyard to visit a real Santa from the North Pole or Lapland (aka Finland). The quality of the expressways on our journey makes it a pleasant and easy trip too so we really can't complain and as a family we really do love any excuse for a road trip.
The Santa Claus we visit is in Finland No Mori, a small retail park that has a very Scandinavian feel to it. Harman Stoves store host the Santa and his grotto is actually there all year round. We call them Santa Grotto in Ireland, but usually they are wooden or log houses, which is exactly what the one in Finland No Mori is. In order to visit Santa you need to purchase a 1000 yen worth of goods in either the bakery, Mori No Pan Ya, or foreign produce stores on site. You get a ticket in exchange for your purchases that entitles you to visit with Santa and get a photo taken with him.
On our road trip this year we were later leaving our house than we had intended, but as luck would have it, there was very little to no traffic on the road and we did really good time. We broke up the journey with a stop at Tsuga Nishikata Parking area which is the 2nd parking area in Tochigi on the Tohoku Expressway as you drive away from Tokyo. It is a small parking area, but it was perfect for a quick stop. We continued our journey without another stop and ended up arriving earlier than we had planned and well before anyone else. This year we were particularly blessed that it started to snow as we entered Nasu, which just added to the magic for the kids.
We were the first in line to see Santa and our luck continued: the day before Santa's visiting hours had been from 10.30 am, but on the day we arrived the time had been moved forward to 10 am. Thanks to this, we were the only family there until about 10.15 and we got to spend 15 minutes chatting with Santa. The wonderful, warm and kind staff of Harman Stoves took dozens of photos for us. Like Santa Claus, they were patient and understanding with my four year old, who was shy, and my two year old, who was scared. My 7 year old and 5 year old were a little bit shy at first, but were soon chatting away (in English - bonus!) with Santa. The staff tried their best to get a good photo of all 6 of us with Santa. They didn't quite succeed, but we did end up with some really funny photos of my youngest in tears and my 4 year old hiding behind her hair.
Last year, we went to the Teddy Museum , Beetle Museum, SL land and the restaurant beside it. This year, we had other plans later in the day, so we just went to Nasu Nogahara park in the neighbouring Nasushiobara, before getting back on the highway and stopping in Sano Service Area on the way back. The Inbound Sano Service area is quite boring, so we walked down the steps that link you to the Outbound Sano Service Area which has some fun things to entertain young kids.
While our visit to Santa might take a lot more planning and time to the visits of my youth, it is totally worth it. Having a road trip to look forward to as part of the Santa visit helps to create an atmosphere and excitement, in fact I think it really adds to the experience for us all, particularly kids. It is now one of our favourite new old traditions! What old traditions have you adapted to enjoy Christmas in Japan?
More details about Finland No Mori and our 2015 trip to Nasu here: http://insaitama.com/santa-grotto-sleigh-tochigi-kanto/