I’ve spent many Christmastimes overseas as a journalist, including one on the beach in Lebanon. But one of the most enjoyable was in Japan, while I still was in the Air Force.
Several of us junior officers decided we wanted to ski over the holiday so we booked reservations at the posh ski resort of Akakura in the Japanese Alps. To get there required a long train ride and then a Snowcat to the hotel (a leftover from the U.S. occupation days when many such resorts were taken over by our forces).
Old G.I. ski gear was available at the hotel, which boasted white tablecloths and bisexual toilets. With a mix of outerwear, including old G.I. parkas, we took to the slopes, fresh with a couple of feet of fresh snow. A single two-seat chairlift served the area. The snow was deep and the skiing haphazard, but the four of us survived. At that point, we spoke almost no Japanese.
Christmas Eve, we grabbed out yukatas (robes) and headed for the ofuro, or hot spring. This was a large room with hot, natural spring water trickling down a mammoth rock. The temperature was very hot, and the only way to survive was not to move once in the water, so that a layer of cooler water hugged the body.
Naturally, we had imbibed inexpensive booze, thanks to the Class 6 military liquor locker, so we were feeling pretty good, with the ofuro all to ourselves except for one other foreign man sitting under the small waterfall. Pretty soon, we started singing Christmas carols, loudly if not well.
Then the man under the waterfall joined in, and we ran through the three or four carols we knew. Then the man led us through a couple of French noels and then one totally unfamiliar to us.
“It’s a Dutch Christmas song,” he explained. And he introduced himself – Arthur J. Van Nieurberg III, the Japanese translator at the Netherlands embassy. He had served in the U.S. for a few years and had learned our carols then. He had learned to speak Japanese as a POW during the war.
He invited us to join him for dinner in his room after the bath. There, we met his Japanese wife and three children.
We dined on sashimi and Dutch vodka and enjoyed watching the kids open Christmas gifts. He entertained us with stories of POW life.
“The Christmases I had then were pretty grim, but with the other Dutch prisoners, we marked the day. I promised myself that someday I would celebrate Christmas in Japan as a free man. Kampai! (“Bottoms up!” in Japanese).”
To this day, whenever I toast in Japanese at dinners, I think of Van and that Christmas at Akakura. Kampai!
Appeal entertainment editor