Christmas has come early this year. Department stores like Isetan have already put up their Christmas trees and wreaths. Starbucks has started playing jazz renditions of Christmas favorites. Red and green and gold and silver Christmas decorations can now be bought in 100-yen stores. Afternoon Tea’s gift packages include candles, bath salts shaped like Christmas ornaments, home fragrance diffusers (“White Christmas” evoking snowy woods), and, of course, tea.
Best of all, the Christmas cake catalogues have rolled off the press. These are sumptuously photographed booklets listing the scrumptious cakes—cross-section and ingredients lovingly illustrated—on offer from well-known hotels, cake shops and bakeries, and leading patissiers.
One can order them off the internet or at the store, and arrange to have them sent by express delivery or else pick them up personally on December 22, 23, or 24. What better way to celebrate Christmas than to savor a slice of cake while multi-colored lights wink merrily on the festooned tree and the Vince Guaraldi Trio play “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the background?
Department stores like Takashimaya start taking orders for Christmas cakes as early as October 5. Christmas cake catalogues are not exclusive to department stores. They are available in convenience stores like Seven-Eleven and Circle K and in ordinary supermarkets like Izumiya.
Many of the Japanese patissiers are trained in France, and their seasonal Christmas cakes reflect their mastery of their craft, their rigorous aesthetic, and their innovative approach to blending the best of East and West. European patisseries have branches in Japan, for which they create limited-edition specials.
Louange Tokyo’s cake—available from Daimaru—features a cute chocolate teddy bear made from Felchlin’s Grand Cru couverture of 65% Maracaibo cacao, redolent of sweet raisin, orange marmalade and caramel.
My perennial favorite, Pierre Marcolini, uses his own original couverture to fashion an exquisite garnet cube of bitter chocolate and framboise (raspberry).
Swiss-trained Es Koyama creates a hybrid cake of matcha (Japanese tea) cream and matcha chocolate, with milk ganache and brittle chocolate croquant on a base of almond-flavored joconde.
The cakes in Izumiya are meant to appeal to children: there’s an Ampanman shortcake for toddlers featuring the eponymous superhero and his cohort Shokupanman and Karepanman. Crème de la Crème’s profiterole is a mountain of petits choux cream puffs, filled with Belgian chocolate custard and cream, bulging with kiwi, grapefruit, and strawberry slices, and topped with a grinning Santa Claus figurine.
Seven-Eleven offers a variety of strawberry shortcakes as well as “ice cakes” (ice-cream cakes), plus a Mont Blanc made of Italian chestnuts.
For those who cannot make up their mind, Circle K has fashioned a cake made of eight assorted slices: mango mousse, strawberry cream and berry, cheese mousse, chocolate, marron chestnut, matcha tea, caramel, and berry mousse.
Christmas cakes have become a Japanese tradition. Come winter, grocery stores tend to experience butter shortage as the country’s dairy producers strive to keep up with demand. As more children and young people embrace Christmas in the same way that they have learned to embrace Halloween, Christmas has gone from being “foreign” to family affair.
This year’s Christmas will be a long weekend, starting with the Emperor’s birthday on Friday the 23rd. For couples, Christmas is Valentine’s Day. Hotels are often fully booked for overnight stay and offer “set-menu” Christmas dinner courses. Working women blithely defy the pejorative label of “Christmas cake” (unmarried after age 25) by celebrating Christmas eve with their friends over champagne and Wagyu beef and a good Christmas Day buffet breakfast.
The point is to celebrate life with family, friends, and other loved ones, and Christmas cakes are sweet reminders of the fact that one can never have enough of life, with all its pleasures and promises.