Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Japan = cigarettes + McDonald's

I won't be home for the holidays this year. Instead, I'll be celebrating Christmas with a chain-smoking Bulgarian at a McDonald's somewhere north of Kyoto.

The chain-smoking Bulgarian is my good friend and constant hiking companion Sergey. He wanted to go on a multi-day hike during the holidays but he didn't want to fork over the cash to buy a tent or stay in a hotel. His solution? Sleep at a McDonald's. (And by "sleep" he really means "sit in an uncomfortably hard booth between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.")

McDonald's is open 24 hours and you can stay all night for the price of a cup of coffee. This is an arrangement unique to Japan. When you buy a cup of coffee in Japan, you are not just buying a coffee; you are buying a piece of real estate. That one coffee guarantees you the right to monopolize a table for as long as you like. No one will give you a dirty look and demand that you buy something else or get out.

It was Sergey's idea to go on a multi-day hike and sleep at McDonald's. It was my idea to do it during Christmas. We both thought it would be fun to break with tradition. I mean, who spends Christmas morning waking up inside a McDonald's? It doesn't get much more unconventional than that.

At the same time, I told Sergey I thought it was sort of a sad way to spend Christmas. But he didn't agree. Born in Russia and raised in Bulgaria, Sergey never actually celebrated Christmas until after the collapse of communism in 1989. He grew up wearing a jaunty blue kerchief around his neck (the uniform of young communists-in-training) and called his teachers "comrade."

He still gets Santa Claus confused with "Jack the Frost." (Apparently, he also gets "Jack Frost" confused with "Jack the Ripper.") In communist Bulgaria, there was no Santa Claus. Just a menacing-sounding "Jack the Frost" who gave presents to children on January 1st.

And although he's no fan of McDonald's, Sergey used to think of the golden arches as a symbol of Western freedom and opportunity when he was growing up. He didn't know many of us in the West thought of it as a symbol of everything that's wrong with America.

There's something kind of poetic about the two of us -- Sergey who grew up under communism and me who grew up in a democracy -- spending a holiday that means nothing to him and something to me in a place he used to worship and I despised.

The McAdventure begins on Christmas Eve, when we will hike 15 km from Kyoto to Lake Biwa. The plan is to find a McDonald's somewhere along the coastline and spend the night there. We will wake up on Christmas morning, unwrap a couple of Egg McMuffins and continue hiking north along Lake Biwa until we find another McDonald's to stay at for the night. We will hike back to Kyoto on Boxing Day. Or maybe we'll be so comatose by that point that we'll have to take the train back.

And with that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas (however and where ever you choose to celebrate it)!

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