The barrel was quite huge, about the volume of a 5 gallon bucket.
Despite living in Japan for over 20 years, my husband and I have never taken part in the traditional fried chicken and Christmas cake rituals that have somehow become a part of the Japanese Christmas tradition. I'm not certain of how this tradition began, but I would be surprised if it weren't the devil spawn of the KFC marketing department. They are the kings of this ritual, though a wide variety of other outlets, including convenience stores and other fast food places, have jumped on the fried chicken bandwagon around this time of year.
The reservation schedule posted at our local KFC. The top shows the menu options for Christmas packs/barrels. The yellow tags indicate limited availability of chicken during those hours and the orange tags are hours in which no original recipe chicken will be on offer. You can see that 3:00 pm - 9:00 pm on the 24th is the busiest. (Click this to see a bigger version.)
While it may seem that having KFC for Christmas is just a simple matter of strolling on over to the local greasy chicken outlet and picking up a bucket, it's a bit more complicated than that because of the popularity of getting chicken during "the 3 days of Christmas" in Japan. At least in Tokyo, you have to make an effort to sign up early in order to pick your grub up around dinner time on the 23rd, 24th or 25th. If you don't, you risk getting shut out entirely as they can run out of original recipe chicken. Also, there can be huge mobs of people on the 25th and it's hard to get what you want by mere luck.
My husband and I signed up a few weeks before the date, but even then we were too late to hit any of the sweet spots for dinner on Christmas Eve or Day. We had to settle for the 23rd, which happens to be a national holiday (the Emperor's birthday) in Japan. You choose a time to pick up your chicken at 10-minute intervals. Ours was between 6:30-6:40. If you're late, you still get your chicken, but it will have sat around for awhile. Since you have to pay when you make your reservation, they don't care if you show up or not.
The bucket contents unpacked.
There are a few different options, but we opted for the "party barrel A" for 3,880 yen ($47) because you get a commemorative plate in addition to a "Christmas salad", Christmas cake, and 8 pieces of original recipe chicken. The other options include the "party barrel B" (4 pieces of chicken, 6 tenders, a salad, a cake and the plate for the same price as "A"), and "Christmas Packs" which include only various types of chicken (tenders, nuggets, and pieces), no salad, no cake, and no plate. My husband wanted to get the plate as part of the deal as a memento of our first "Japanese-style" Christmas meal, but we also figured that this would save us having to arrange for a separate cake.
The whole lot served up, save the cake. That's our rice. It doesn't come with your barrel.
Except for the cake, nothing much was going to be a surprise. Everyone knows what original recipe KFC tastes like. The "Christmas salad" was nothing more than a smallish bit of salad with a Caesar salad kit on the side. What was worse was that the salad was mostly iceberg lettuce. Again, this was no great shock, but it would have been nice if they had done a little better by those buying expensive Christmas barrels. The salad kit had dressing, croutons, bacon bits, Parmesan cheese, and 4 plastic forks. The salad portion was barely adequate for 2. If you had 4 people, it would have been obscenely tiny.
The cake was very soft and I had a little trouble getting it out of the package without denting up the soft chocolate topping. When my husband smelled it, he said it was very reminiscent of something and asked me what I thought. My first thought was chocolate pudding, and that was his thought as well. The cake looks like your usual Japanese Christmas cake in that it has little flecks of real gold in the center to add a touch of elegance.
The cake was largely whipped cream based. The super soft outer layer was slightly bittersweet and where most of the flavor lay. The texture was pretty nice, but I would have liked a bit more heft both in terms of the flavor and density of the cake. The cake itself nearly vanished in a melty cloud of cream. It wasn't bad, but wasn't nearly as good as the cake I was given last year, not by a long shot. On the bright side, the cake was about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter and provided 4 large pieces or 8 small ones. My husband and I each had 1/8, and that weighed in at a mere 90 calories per serving.
This was an interesting experience, but mainly for going through the process of reserving it, picking it up, and seeing what the surprises might be. All in all though, it wasn't a very good meal, but I'm not a fan of fast food in general and KFC in particular. I ate one piece of the chicken only and the rest my husband will have to slowly eat by himself. If you love KFC and want a plate as a souvenir to remember your time in Japan by, this may be worthwhile, but I wouldn't do this again.
I have to ponder why this is so popular in Japan despite being a decidedly so-so experience on the food front. It's certainly not cheap. In fact, you could probably buy all of the components separately and end up with more money left in your pocket. The plate isn't really even a free bonus and you could definitely get a nicer cake, even from a convenience store. I think that this ultimately is like a lot of Western traditions in that we don't do them because they are good but simply because they are familiar and following this custom puts one in the proper spirit for the holiday. Many Japanese people eat bad fried chicken for Christmas for the same reason that we still give fruitcakes. It's just what is done by everyone and we try not to think too deeply about why we do it.
Merry Christmas to all of my readers!