The Okinawan Town with Dozens of Santas
Christmas in Japan is a relatively low-key event compared to in the West. Although it's common for many businesses to put up trees and lights to boost holiday commerce, Christmas does not have national holiday status and it tends to be overshadowed by other events such as December night illuminations (see: Arashiyama Hanatouro) and New Year's holidays. The extent of celebrations for many families is to observe Christmas Eve with a Christmas cake and a bucket of KFC. A 1970s "Kentucky for Christmas" campaign is to thank for that fast food oddity.
There is, however, at least one town in Okinawa where Christmas is celebrated with gusto, and some of the decorations remain up year-round. The town of Chatan is home to Mihama American Village, a large entertainment complex featuring food, shopping, and – come December – plentiful installations of lights and Santas.
Mihama American Village
I had reservations about visiting Mihama American Village. When I'm in Japan, I want to see Japan. Rail transport in Okinawa is limited though, and the next best option was a Jumbo Tours bus that happened to include a stop at the entertainment complex in its itinerary. Since the stop was non-negotiable, I set my expectations low and came expecting to find a tourist trap. As expectations go, there were no surprises. A large Ferris wheel and a smorgasbord of tacky tourist shops greeted me upon arrival. I'm not sure what the Statue of Liberty, Santa, and a scantily-clad female pirate have in common, but you can find that welcoming combo at the American Depot building in the center of the complex.
Whenever I'm asked how I'd define American culture, I usually struggle to put it into words. However, seeing an extravagant American-themed entertainment complex contrasted by a country that prides itself on art and aesthetic does give me some ideas for adjectives. I especially want to use the word kitschy. To be fair, American Village is a stereotypical perception of America for tourists, but it's still amusing to see how my country is perceived by others.
It's not surprising to find an American-themed district in Chatan. About half of the land area of the town is covered in United States military bases, and many service members and their families live in the area. Some of them work in or frequent American Village.
In addition to restaurants, cafés, bars, and shopping, the complex hosts a live music venue with nightly performances, a movie theater, a bowling alley, an art gallery, and a huge Sega arcade with classic games like Time Crisis.
I wouldn't normally spend a lot of time at a place like this. In fact, I intended to pass the time eating dinner until the bus was ready to leave, but the lure of twinkling lights drew me in. During the Christmas season the whole American Village area is decked out with lights, Santas, elves, reindeer, snowmen, toy soldiers, and gingerbread men. It's a bit of an assault on the eyes at first, but as I began looking through the area, the atmosphere slowly won me over.
Santa Claus is a recurring sight throughout the Village. The jolly old man can be seen coming down a chimney, playing a banjo, fixing toys, chugging ale, serving up cake, reading books, and riding various vehicles in the form of sleighs, cars, and planes. I tried to keep a rough count of just how many Santas are packed into the place, but I lost count around one hundred.
There are, of course, many Christmas trees throughout the area as well. Some are traditional, while others are themed after the shop they decorate, such as a beer bottle tree by the bar and a jeans tree in the apparel shop.
The west side of the area facing the ocean contains a multi-story building that features a shop called Christmas Land. It sells festive decorations and ornaments year-round that have been imported from Germany, Finland, and other parts of Europe. There's a few levels to the building, and the upper floor has a nice view of the ocean.
Many of the shops and restaurants close at 9PM, but the Christmas lights remain on until about midnight, so the sights can still be enjoyed in the after hours.
Mihama American Village can be reached in about 40 minutes via bus number 28, 29, or 120 from the Naha Bus Terminal. The closest nearby stops are Gun Byouin-mae and Kuwae, which are only several minutes away by foot. By car it's about 30 minutes via National Route 58. There is free parking on the premises.
I don't think I would go out of my way to pay the area a visit, even during Christmas, but as the last stop on my Jumbo Tours itinerary I thought it wasn't bad. It's probably the most decorated place I've come across in Japan during Christmas.