Much of the glitz, kitsch and sparkle of Christmas - from tree decorations to Alpine-style Christmas markets, and, naturally, the odd Santa! - has made its way into contemporary Japanese culture, with a few innovations and evolutions along the way. Although it's not a public holiday or a big religious celebration, the festive season in Japan is full of the holiday spirit: city centres twinkle with elaborate illuminations, the mountains are covered in snow, and romance is in the air, making Japan a great destination for an alternative Christmas break.
When the nights get longer, nothing that says ‘festive’ more than hundreds of tiny lights brightening the murky evenings. From flickering candles to flashing neon, in Japan’s major cities lighting the winter darkness can be seen in full force from November through to January. Nowhere does it better than Tokyo, where the twinkle is turned up to 11. Stroll down avenues of glittering trees in the famously illuminated Marunouchi Naka-dori (which now uses low energy bulbs for an eco-friendly display), wander through the warm glow of Yebisu Garden Place (which includes a 5 metre high illuminated chandelier!), or bathe in the ethereal ‘blue cavern’ at Yoyogi Park. Highlights elsewhere in Japan include blankets of twinkling lights which cover the ground like flowers at the Sagamiko Illuminations in Kanagawa, and the cathedral-like Kobe Luminarie.
With scatterings of Alpine-esque wooden huts, cute decorations and large helpings of kitsch, it’s no surprise that Japan has embraced the worldwide trend for German-style Christmas markets. Tokyo has a good selection of Christmas markets which are excellent for a festive potter. The main outdoor Christmas market in Hibiya Park includes live entertainment and workshops, while other smaller indoor markets have a wide selection of more unusual stalls. Tokyo also has a selection of homegrown niche markets throughout December. Hagoita-Ichi is a 3-day which specialises in selling hagoita (decorative bats which serve as good luck charms), and Boroichi is an enormous 700-stall flea market selling everything from antiques to rice. If you’re in Kyoto on the 21st of any month, snaffle a few bargains at the Toji temple flea market which is particularly good in December and January.
Christmas is traditionally a time to be with the ones you love, and Christmas Eve in Japan has become an occasion where couples, rather than families, spend quality time together. A little like Valentine's Day, this is a time for couples to get dressed in their finest, head out for extravagant meals in the best restaurants, eat ‘Christmas Cake’ (see below) and exchange gifts. If you and your loved one are in Japan for Christmas it’s worth booking restaurants and activities for Christmas Eve well before you go (many restaurants get booked up early) so that you too can enjoy an evening of festive romance. Wandering through the illuminations, going ice-skating or spending the day at a theme park all make interesting additions to going out for dinner or, if you’re feeling like really pushing the boat out, experience the charm of travel from a bygone era with a luxury sleeper train journey through southern Japan.
One advantage of Christmas not being a public holiday in Japan is that many major attractions, whose equivalents in Europe are closed over the festivities, remain open on Christmas Day. Just imagine spending Christmas in a theme park! Universal Studios in Osaka has a giant interactive Christmas tree and special festive additions to its programme, and Tokyo Disneyland does Christmas with the sparkle at full volume, including themed parades and all the decorations. If the big theme parks feel a bit full-on and you want something with magic but less mayhem, spend the day with Totoro and friends at the Studio Ghibli museum - a beautifully enchanting hidden gem loved by children and grown-ups alike and just a short metro journey from central Tokyo. On the other hand, if you can’t get enough of the season’s sugar-coated, twinkling cuteness, head to Sanrio Puroland (the theme park home of Hello Kitty and friends) for a full-on kawaii Christmas.
Food traditions are central to every Christmas celebration, from saffron buns in Sweden to mince pies in the UK, and Japan has developed a few traditions of its own when it comes to compulsory inclusions in the Christmas feasting. Japanese Christmas cake is a joyful confection of shortcake sponge, strawberries and cream (a world away from the richly fruity European Christmas cakes) which couples share on their Christmas Eve date and families enjoy after work on Christmas Day. Make your own or buy a beautifully adorned one from a bakery. Themed bento is another big trend, and many station bento carts will have festive variations for you to try. Similarly, the traditional Japanese sweets, wagashi, can be found everywhere in Christmassy designs. However, thanks to a clever marketing campaign in the 1970s, the single biggest Christmas food tradition in Japan is to eat KFC for Christmas dinner!
If you dream of stepping out into a picture-perfect scene on Christmas morning, the snow-covered mountains of Honshu and Hokkaido certainly deliver. From early December the ski resorts are in full flow offering plenty of opportunities for, well, skiing obviously, but also a wealth of other deliciously festive winter activities.
Experience ice skating, an ice slide, a gallery of ice flowers and toasted marshmallows at Tomamu Resort's Ice Village, or go on a snowshoe trek through frost-covered forests at Niseko Village where a stay at the Green Leaf gives you instant access to the slopes, views across the winter wonderland and even the option of a blissful soak in a thermal pool on Christmas Day. Crunch through the glistening snow, drink hot sake and hot chocolate and cosy up together in the warm. Check out our Winter in Japan article or chat with our Destination Specialists for more ideas about visiting during the festive season.
All images (c) JNTO