Japan's pets get to join in festive fun
FORGET the kids. What are you doing for your dog this Christmas? How are you going to celebrate with your cat?
That's the question on the minds of many in Japan, where, as in the United States, the number of pets far outstrips the number of children. A candy cane-striped chew toy just isn't going to cut it.
Take Ukyo Suzuki, who was shopping in the chichi Tokyo neighbourhood of Azabu-juban recently with Ichigo (Strawberry), her Pomeranian.
Ichigo was wearing a handknitted Santa suit that almost obscured her pink, jewelled collar.
"We're planning a Christmas trip together," said Ms Suzuki, pointing to her husband and, of course, to Ichigo. They're going to an onsen resort - a hotel with hot springs - in Shizuoka. And "they" means all three of them. The resort has special bath facilities for dogs, too.
"On occasions like this, I like to cook a special meal for her so she knows that it is a special day," Ms Suzuki said. This Christmas, Ichigo will be getting chicken stew with lots of vegetables.
Such measures may sound over the top, but for many in Japan, pets are replacing children. That means four-legged furries are increasingly the "offspring" of choice. There are 16 million people younger than 15 living in Japan, but more than 20 million cats and dogs, according to the most recent figures from the Japan Pet Food Association.
"In Japan, pet owners consider pets to be their family members. Some treat them as if they are their children," said Koichi Makino, the product sales department manager at Peppy, a pet supplies website.
"Many of our customers are couples without children. They want to spend a happy life together and enjoy special events like Christmas and New Year together."
This is not a Christian country, so Christmas is a purely commercial event. But, while pet stores in the West don't miss the chance to sell gifts for pooches, Japan takes Christmas for pets to a whole new level.
Peppy is offering Christmas cakes that dogs and owners alike can enjoy, including the Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, a chiffon cake with Caspian yogurt, cheese and cookies on top, at about US$25 (S$33) each.
It also offers dinner packs for dogs, including chicken cream stew, grilled turkey with fruit sauce, gardenia rice, green salad and a cream puff, at US$28 a pop.
Then there are the New Year bento boxes for dogs. One US$30, three-tiered set includes delicacies including bonito broth-rolled omelette, venison ragu farfalle, lamb steak, roast chicken with tzatziki, pineapple fried rice and a mango eclair. The US$55 "family set" can be enjoyed by both pet and owner, and includes roast beef and mashed sweet potatoes with honey and chestnuts.
Tedukayama Wanbana, an Osaka shop specialising in additive-free dog food and cakes, is offering more appropriate dog fare: cakes and cupcake sets made of horse meat and vegetables. But they're still done up to look like they came straight from a Parisian patisserie.
The "happy day" cake (US$31) contains only 300 calories, and the shop will pipe the dog's name onto it with frosting.
These offerings are part of a broader pet-care industry here worth about US$9 billion annually, according to figures from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
It's not unusual to see people pushing a dog, or three, in a stroller. Like baby strollers, they come in a wide variety, from the basic US$80 model to the SUV-equivalent with air-filled tyres and the option of facing forward or to the rear. The Primo "pet buggy" with bassinet function costs upwards of US$400.
Dog groomers offer the usual shampoo and clipping services, but salons such as I Am Candy in Azabu-juban also offer reflexology and aromatherapy massages for dogs (from US$15 for 15 minutes).
Of course, not all Japanese pet owners are celebrating the season with the four-legged members of their families.
Maru Kobayashi, out walking with Shun, a white Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix strapped to her chest in a baby carrier for dogs, shook her head when asked if the pup would hear jingle bells this week.
"No, we just celebrate his birthday," she said. And what do they do for his birthday?
"Well, he likes cake, but only the ones for humans. His favourite food is foie gras."