TOKYO, Dec 24 — A white Christmas is every little girl and boy’s dream. It’s no different in Japan. However, in large cities such as Tokyo, snowfall is rarely heavy enough to blanket the ground. (The heat from all those concrete and steel skyscrapers can’t possibly help matters.)
And so, we prepare ourselves for a snow-free Christmas.
Luckily, the ever problem-solving Tokyoites have decided that if one can’t depend on nature to supply anything more than melted slush in lieu of powdery snow, then a more reliable wintry ambience must be created. Instead of snow, let there be light!
Yes, winter illumination in Tokyo is a major festive experience for locals and tourists alike. Streets and buildings are artfully decorated in LED lights that create an artificial snow-scape with none of the cleaning up the morning after when pristine snow turns to dirty, muddy puddles.
Perhaps the most beautiful spot for winter illumination is at the high-end shopping streets of Roppongi Hills. The Artelligent Christmas event covers most of the area surrounding Roppongi Hills but the major light-up takes place along the stretch of Keyakizaka.
We stroll down this 400-metre street, an easy walk given its gentle incline, with hundreds of thousands of lights strewn on tree branches above us. Make that more than a million — 1,200,000 LED lights to be exact — which makes it a rather surreal, fairyland experience.
The lights don’t stay one colour, though: they alternate between bluish-white lights (the Snow and Blue theme) and a more fiery hue (the Candle and Red theme).
Our patience pays off; other casual passers-by only see the lights in white. The change to red only happens once a hour — either at five minutes or 25 minutes past, depending on where we’re standing — and lasts for but a scant 10 minutes.
The fleeting chance to see this briefest of radiance, is it not more delightful this way? White lights and red “candles” — now what is that if not a white and red Christmas?
Even when the weather is bracing, we can’t help but return to the bedtime stories of our childhood, of snow-laden winter lands. And of stars scattered across the sky on a winter night: Twinkle, twinkle, little stars indeed.
As if to break us from our reverie, the dramatically lit Tokyo Tower seems to rise in the distance. Yes, we are in Tokyo, after all. Other popular spots for winter illumination viewing in the capital include Marunouchi, Omotesando, Caretta Shiodome, the Tokyo Dome and Tokyo Skytree. The sparkling winter lights create a Yuletide wonderland that simply demands to be explored.
All that walking conjures up quite an appetite. Though we are in Tokyo, Japanese fare doesn’t quite scream Christmas. The other great cuisine in Tokyo, however, is French. (Given the number French cafés, bistros, crêperies, bakeries and restaurants in town, this comes as no surprise.)
Many Tokyoites are Francophiles including our friend Satomi, who recommends we go to her favourite French eatery, Maison de la Bourgogne. Located in Kagurazaka (known as the petit Paris of Tokyo and home to the French expatriate community), Maison de la Bourgogne is a casual French bistro with all the chops and none of the chi-chi.
It’s not quite the climate for open-air dining — a fine spring day would be best, followed by a not-too-sunny summer day — but Maison de la Bourgogne has outdoor heaters for those of us who prefer an al fresco table. We are warm but still enjoy the crisp winter air.
What better way to start a French meal than with foie gras? At Maison de la Bourgogne, the macaron de foie gras de canard confit au porto is sheer luxury. A drizzle of port wine reduction cuts the fattiness of the duck — not goose — foie gras but make no mistake about it: this is still a hedonistic appetiser.
For something lighter, the écrasé de tourteaux, guacamole et gelée de crustacées is a winner. Who knew crushed crab meat, guacamole and shellfish jelly could be so refreshing?
Our mains are typically French: Joue de bœuf braisée à la Bourguignonne and vol-au-vent. The former — beef cheeks braised with Burgundy wine — is given a Japanese and Spanish twist with nouilles de soba au chorizo (soba noodles and chorizo sausages), making it less one dimensional.
The vol-au-vent is a meeting of sea and land with the fruits de mer (pan-seared seafood) and champignons des bois en fricassé (stewed wild mushrooms) lending a sweet richness to the puff pastry. Comfort food, this.
For a sweet finish to our meal, we share a couple of desserts. The Gaufres de Bruxelles croustillantes, poires caramélisées, glace à la vanille et guimauve au vin rouge feels more Breton than Belgian as the crispy mini-waffles are made even more decadent with caramelised pears, vanilla ice cream and red wine marshmallows.
The chefs get playful with their vacherin blanc façon tiramisu, shards of meringue served in the style of a de-constructed tiramisu (coffee-flavoured Mascarpone custard ice cream and rum-soaked mousse). Not quite molecular gastronomy, thankfully.
This rustic, red-walled bistro in the heart of the metropolis, this briefest of hideaways, is it not more of a treasure this way? White cheese and red wine — now that’s a white and red Christmas for you!
Roppongi Hills Artelligent Christmas 2017
6-11-1 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo, Japan
Closest station: Roppongi
Dates: Nov 7 –Dec 25, 2017, daily 5pm-11pm
Maison de la Bourgogne
3-6-5 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Closest station: Iidabashi
Open Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm & 6-11pm; Sat 11:30am-5pm & 6-11pm; Sun 11:30am-5pm & 6-9pm