Christmas in Japan | Illuminations, Mariah Carey & KFC?

A family eats KFC on Christmas Day in Japan

Ahhh Christmas… cue the traditional festivities, costly shopping, Christmas melodies, glittering lights, and…KFC?!?! What the hell? Yes you read that right! Christmas in Japan is definitely a different beast when compared to Western countries. From good gone bad to straight-up quirky, the yuletide season in Japan just isn’t what Westerners envision back home. Let’s take a look at what you can expect from Christmas in the land of the rising sun.

First off, Christmas in Japan is not founded on any religious undertones like in Western countries. Indeed for many, it is just another workday. Historically, Japan has been rather antagonistic toward Christian teachings and thus has a very small congregation. If you are interested, you can reference this article for more information on the bloody history of Christianity in Japan.

Despite this troubled history, Japan’s modern incarnation of Christmas has adopted traditions from America while conveniently overlooking the holiday’s origin (you know, like Jesus’s birthday and all that). While Christmas was imported over many years, the holiday now manifests itself in strange ways thanks to marketers’ unique spin.

What follows is a smorgasbord of peculiarity that you can expect from the season in Japan…

Christmastime Illuminations

A family looks at illuminations in Tokyo on Christmas Day in Japan

Most Japanese families do not deck out their homes with Christmas lights nor do they buy evergreen trees. With shoebox sized apartments, these holiday staples are just not a possibility. Instead, Japanese people opt for public light displays that are called “illuminations.” All major cities will typically have at least one big site dedicated solely to illuminations. Tokyo, of course, has many.

These magical picturesque light displays are up throughout most of December and the more popular ones draw huge crowds. Illuminations are also popular date spots and especially so since Christmas is celebrated mainly among couples rather than families. Don’t even ask! The reasons why Christmas evolved into a romantic holiday remains a mystery. Just chalk it up to another one of Japan’s unique joyous takes on the holiday.

Anyway, popular “illumination” sites include Tokyo Midtown (Roppongi), Shinjuku Southern Terrace, and Kobe’s Illuminarie. No doubt, Kobe’s Illuminarie is by far the most exquisite but it is technically not a Christmas display. Instead, the installation actually commemorates Kobe’s recovery from the Great Hanshin Earthquake. However, since this illumination debuts during the month of December it certainly contributes to the Christmas spirit.

People gather in Japan to marvel at Kobe’s Illuminarie around Christmas time

If you can’t catch Kobe’s Illuminarie (pictured above), fear not. Neighboring Osaka also boasts a number of impressive illumination displays. The most noteworthy of these is OSAKA Hikari-Renaissance 2017, located near Osaka City Hall. This stunning light exhibit runs from December 14th thru December 25th. This handy map on their website also lists other illuminations to check out around Osaka.

Tokyo Midtown hosts the most popular Christmas light display in Tokyo. But, in addition to being the most impressive, it is also the most crowded. You might find yourself waiting in line to enter this display. On the other hand, Shinjuku Southern Terrace allows visitors to walk through freely. Although the display is crowded, there will be no wait to enter the area as it is entirely public.

For a uniquely Japanese twist on light displays, check out the Japanese garden at Hotel New Otani. This 400-year-old garden lights up with its gorgeous illumination display every night through February. Alternatively, Yokohama’s “Smart Illumination” is a more artistic and eco-friendly take on light displays. The display is crafted using the latest energy-efficient technology and designs from a dozen artists, both Japanese and international.

This year, Shibuya is hosting the brand new Ao-no-Dokutsu illumination. This stunning walk of blue lights extends from just north of Shibuya station towards the direction of Yoyogi Park. In 2018, this display will expand to six other cities nationwide. You can check out the Shibuya walk from now until December 31st.

Sagamiko Illumillion near Lake Sagami in Kanagawa are popular around Christamas time in Japan

All of the above listings are free entry. For those willing to fork out a few hundred yen though, even more impressive illuminations await. Sagamiko Illumillion near Lake Sagami in Kanagawa is one of the largest. As can be seen above, six million lights, a musical fountain show, a ferris wheel, and more await visitors. Ready for more? The Ashikaga Flower park in Tochigi hosts another gigantic scene. Four million LEDs and music and light shows transform the park into a magical winter wonderland. Entrance is 900 yen.

Are lights just not quite enough for you? Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo beefs up the festive frenzy with firework displays. A 10-minute firework show is held every Saturday throughout December. Finally, if you are longing to see a gigantic Christmas tree, head to Yebisu Garden Place. This classy display makes use of a 5 meter chandelier, a towering Christmas tree, and over 100,000 lights.

Options for Dining on Christmas

A KFC special offering for families looking to eat fried chicken for on Christmas Day in Japan

This is where things start to get tricky. Finding a traditional Christmas meal in Japan is not an easy task. As hinted at before, the most popular Christmas dinner in Japan is actually KFC! That’s right, KFC outlets get unbelievably busy during Christmas time. As holiday traditions from America began filtering into Japan, folks associated the holiday with images of deliciously roasted turkey.

Hold up! There’s one problem though! Japan doesn’t have turkeys! But, chickens look similar enough. Realizing a potential opportunity, KFC rolled out an aggressive Christmas marketing campaign some decades ago. And, the notion just stuck. And so, KFC became the default Christmas dinner in Japan. You can even pre-order whole chickens to pick up from your local KFC branch.

KFC’s Colonel Sanders is dressed up as Santa Clause for Christmas in Japan

If KFC and queues aren’t your thing though, there are a few other options for Christmas dinners. British and Irish pubs around the major cities often have Christmas dinners available. While they are not cheap, they will satisfy cravings for a more traditional taste of Christmas.

If you’re forgoing tradition for Christmas dinner, also keep in mind that you will need to secure reservations at many restaurants around this time regardless. Christmas Eve is a popular date night for Japanese couples, much akin to Valentine’s Day. It also falls during the year-end party season for companies and some these celebrations inevitably fall around Christmas. Given these happenings, reservations are highly recommended.

Christmas & Disneyland

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are dressed up for Christmas in Japan

Tokyo Disneyland and Disneysea are massively popular destinations during most major holidays. Both parks go all-out with the decor and festivities. The Christmas parades have been known to be particularly vibrant. Travelers are delighted to discover that Tokyo’s Disney parks are noticeably cheaper to enter than other Disney parks around the world. Choosing this option does not need to bust your bank account. Groups with children may want to choose the more family-friendly Disneyland. Couples and young adults, on the other hand, will likely prefer Disneysea as it is geared more so towards adults. You can even buy and drink alcohol on the premises!

Be forewarned though — this is an incredibly crowded time of year at the Disney attractions. Visiting on a weekday is your best bet. Reserving a room at the hotel can be difficult and pricey but don’t let this deter you. The parks are an easy commute from central Tokyo. Trains and highway buses provide easy return transport back into the city at night.

What about the Churches?

Churches celebrate Christmas in the typical manner in Japan

Whether you are a regular or occasional churchgoer, indeed Christmas is an important time of year to attend. Although Japan’s Christian population is small, several churches continue to exist. Catholics have the longest history among Christians in Japan and hence have the largest number of cathedrals. A smaller number of Anglican and Eastern Orthodox cathedrals are also scattered about. You can view a list of all of these cathedrals here. A larger number of smaller churches also exist, serving a wider variety of denominations. A selection of such church listings can be found found here.

Certain major churches celebrate multilingual masses. St. Ignatius Church in Yotsuya is one of the most popular locations for international worshipers. This Catholic church holds services in English, Spanish, and Indonesian every Sunday; once a month, services are said in Vietnamese, Polish, and Portuguese. St. Mary’s Cathedral in Bunkyo-ku holds Korean-language masses as well.

Stop the Christmas Music

During Christmas time in Japan, stores are constantly playing Mariah Carey’s song

Love it or hate it, it’s next to impossible to avoid. Brace yourselves for an endless loop of “Last Christmas,” “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and “All I want for Christmas is You.” Those looking for a classier way to enjoy Christmas music should head over to Opera City near Shinjuku. Catch the Ukraine National Opera Orchestra and a whole range of classical vocalists performing traditional Christmas classics on December 25th. Details are on the calendar here.

Shop Til You Drop!

An woman goes shopping in Japan around Christmas time

Shopping in Japan during the Christmas season is distinctly less hectic than it is elsewhere in the world. Japan does not have a strong tradition exchanging Christmas presents. This means you will not encounter aggressive crowds or endless queues while shopping during the holiday season. Get this… you can purchase a video game console or a favored doll without the likely risk of being crushed in a stampede or punched in the face. You may discover a few sales but keep in mind, if you’re looking for a real bargain deal, it’s best to wait until the New Year’s discounts on January 2. Just remember, long-waited sale seasons and throngs of shoppers typically go hand-in-hand.

Christmas in Japan: Time to Party

Two girls dressed in Santa outfits go clubbing around Christmas time in Japan

Most nightclubs and bars are open on Christmas Eve. At larger venues, the format varies from the regularly scheduled hours and theme. The music will generally be more commercial and the crowd consists primarily of singles looking for a Christmas hookup. If this is not your thing, it might be best to avoid partying at the big clubs on Christmas Eve. If you are looking for a special someone for the night, this is your best chance of the year!

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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