CityMetric Advent 11: The town where goat-based arson is a Christmas tradition

The 2005 goat, shortly before someone burnt it. Image: Broken Haiku on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

The Yule Goat is a Scandinavian tradition which involves making a great big goat out of straw and tying red ribbons round it. It seems to have started out life as some kind of harvest offering linked to Thor, whose preferred method of transport was a goat-drawn chariot. In the pre-Santa 19th century, Swedish people sometimes used to dress as goats to deliver presents. The Yule Goat, in other words, is a symbol of warmth, a symbol of generosity, a symbol of plenty.

The Gävle Goat, by contrast, is a symbol of a stubborn refusal to accept the blindingly obvious fact that people really like setting fire to giant goats made of straw. It stands as a monument to man's pigheaded stupidity.

A bit of background here. In 1966 Stig Gavlén, an advertising consultant living in the eastern Swedish city of Gävle, came up with the idea of adorning the town with a giant yule goat in place of a public Christmas tree. 


With the help of some local bigwigs, he made this dream a reality. The goat was 13 metres tall, 7 metres long and weighed three tonnes. It stood proudly in the city's town square for the whole of December.

Then, on New Year's Eve, someone burnt it down.

No matter, you might think. Christmas was over, it was insured, and, anyway, these things happen if you built a giant goat out of straw. So a local business group took over the sponsorship of the goat, and agreed to build a new one next year.

All was fine for a couple of years but, in 1969, it burnt down again. In 1970, it burnt down again: that time it lasted all of six hours. The business lobby group, a bit sick of seeing its goat go up in flames, stopped sponsoring it. But someone else took over, and the goats kept burning.

The Gävle Goat Wikipedia entry is, very possibly, the greatest page on the entirety of the internet. It's pretty well footnoted but, as ever with Wikipedia, salt must be taken. Nonetheless, some extracts:

1972: The goat collapsed because of sabotage.

1974: Burnt.

1976: Hit by a car.

1978: Again, the goat was kicked to pieces.

1979: The goat was burnt even before it was erected. A new one was built and fireproofed. It was destroyed and broken into pieces.

...and on it goes. In 1983, the legs are destroyed. In 1985, the town erects a 2 metre high metal fence, hires security and leaves soldiers from the local infantry regiment on guard. It lasts until January, then it burns down.

In 1986, apparently not put off by any of this, the business lobby decide they want a piece of the action once again, and start building their own goat. From then onwards, some years, there are two goats. That just means there are twice as many goats to burn.

By 1988 the burning of the goat has become such a tradition that, a thousand miles away in England, people are placing bets on when it will go up in smoke. In 1998 there's a major blizzard on the night of 11 December, and the volunteer guards go to get some coffee on the assumption that you can't burn a goat in a snowstorm. This assumption turns out to be wrong.

The remains of the goat. 12 December, 1998. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2001, a guy from Cleveland Ohio, who's only in the country for three weeks, burns the goat again, because he thinks it's part of the tradition, and it's worth quoting Wikipedia once again on this:

The court confiscated Jones's cigarette lighter with the argument that he clearly was not able to handle it. Jones stated in court that he was no "goat burner", and believed that he was taking part in a completely legal goat-burning tradition.

In 2005 the goat is burned by two guys, one dressed as Santa and the other as the gingerbread man. By 2006 they're storing the goat in a secret location. They need a secret location for their giant straw goat.

In 2013, they soaked the goat in an anti-flammable liquid. Guess what happened on 21 December?


In all, something like half the goats built in Gävle since the tradition began have burnt down. Another chunk have been destroyed in some other way. The survival rate for these things is barely one in three.

On, and in 1968 a couple had sex in it, but apparently that time it survived.

There are two lessons here. One is that festive traditions are pretty mutable. The Gävle authorities think the tradition is erecting the giant Yule Goat. Everyone else thinks the tradition is trying to set fire to it. Both these traditions have co-existed happily, sort of, for nearly half a century.

The other lesson is that people really like setting fire to goats.

For those who are interested in the fate of the goat this year, the authorities have helpfully set up the Gavlebocken Twitter feed. "I’m the biggest straw goat in the world," it says. "Follow my struggle to survive arson attacks."

At time of writing, the goat is still there. 

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Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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