Japan’s main religions are Shintoism and Buddhism, and the percentage of people who are Christian is very small. Nonetheless, Christmas is a very popular holiday in Japan! But the way Christmas is celebrated here might be a bit different than you’re used to if you are from a country where the holiday is celebrated as a part of the Christian religion. In Japan, Christmas is not about religion but more about creating a cozy atmosphere during the dark days and enjoying the company of your lover and friends. Let us tell you a bit more about how to celebrate Christmas in Japan!
A Lovers’ Holiday
In most countries that celebrate Christmas, the holiday season revolves around being with your family. It is the time when adult kids go back to their parents’ home to get together and an opportunity to meet your extended family again. For many, it is the only time in the year that they get to see their relatives. In Japan, the time to see your family is during the New Year’s holiday and during Obon in August. Christmas is not even an official holiday, and many people have to work on December 25th.
But still, Christmas is celebrated extensively by many. Besides Valentine’s Day and White Day, Christmas is a time to be together with your lover! The week before Christmas is probably one of the easiest times to find a date in Japan, as no one wants to be alone on Christmas Eve. On that evening, you will have a hard time finding a room in a ‘love hotel’, as this is the night young couples make time for each other.
Singles who didn’t manage to find a date or are taking a break from dating tend to meet up with their other single friends and have a nice dinner together. When it feels like the rest of the world is getting together with their significant others, what is better than to chat and drink the night away with your best buddies? Many restaurants offer special Christmas menus which are more luxurious than what they usually serve. Your best bet would be to look for great Christmas menus in high-end hotels and western/American restaurants.
The Wonderful World of Winter Illuminations in Japan
One of the best parts of winter in Japan are the many fairytale-like illuminations that pop up all over the country. From late November until mid February, many large shopping malls, open-air (amusement) parks and gardens, busy streets, and special venues erupt in a sea of colorful little lights. The illuminations definitely give some respite from the long dark nights in the middle of the winter and there’s no better way to get into a good Christmas atmosphere!
In Tokyo, the best spots to enjoy winter illuminations are Yebisu Garden Place in Ebisu, Shibuya Koen Dori’s Blue Cave, and Keyakizaka Street in Roppongi. In Kyoto, you don’t need to go further than Kyoto Station for some incredibly pretty illuminated scenery.
If you really want to go all-in, you should visit one of the parks that is 100% dedicated to illuminations. The Ashikaga Flower Park has a great flower-themed illumination event between October and February, near Nagoya you can find the number 1 illumination event in Japan called Nabana no Sato, and on the Izu Peninsula the Izu Granpal Park has an amazing illumination event including a zipline year-round (with a few breaks).
Recommended: Christmas Illuminations in Tokyo
Christmas Atmosphere in Japan
From November you will start to see Christmas decorations pop up all over the place. Santa is a popular figure in Japan and of course you will see decorated trees in shopping malls etc. In that way, Japan isn’t too different from the rest of the world. Home decoration stores will usually sell pretty Christmas-related trinkets to decorate your home with. While the number of people who decorate their homes during Christmas isn’t as big as in the west, those who are a bit home-proud often want to add some Christmassy touches to their place.
Christmas markets have gained great popularity in the last decade, and nowadays most major cities in Japan have one or multiple Christmas markets in December. On these cozy markets you can find tasty western-style winter snacks like fried cheese and rosbeef, and gluhwein (spiced warm red wine) adds to the wintry atmosphere. You can also buy small handicrafts, and sometimes they have an old-fashioned carousel for the little ones.
The one thing that is a bit different about Christmas decorations in Japan compared to many other countries who celebrate Christmas is that the decorations are taken down no later than the night of December 25th. On the 26th, you won’t find any Christmas-related decorations anywhere, as they will have been replaced by traditional Japanese New Year’s decorations by then.
Recommended: Christmas Markets in Tokyo
What’s up with Christmas KFC?
One of the most famous commercial slogans in Japan is ‘Kentucky for Christmas’. A brilliant store manager came up with the slogan in the 1970s and it stuck. It means that in Japan, there are long lines in front of every KFC outlet as many people want to observe their Christmas tradition of eating (KFC) fried chicken during Christmas. They sell special Christmas boxes that will satisfy any hungry family.
Many think that KFC won this competitive edge by fibbing about fried chicken being an American Christmas tradition, but KFC spokespeople say that the savvy manager saw a business opportunity after dressing up as Santa during a Christmas party one time. No matter what the actual origins are of the smart marketing ploy, the Japanese tradition to eat fried chicken at Christmas is still going strong today.
Christmas Cake in Japan
Another curious culinary Christmas tradition in Japan is the Christmas cake. The most popular type of Christmas cake is a simple sponge cake covered with whipped cream and topped with strawberries. Often there will be a depiction of Santa on the cake as well. The tradition of eating Christmas cake started after a famous pastry shop from Tokyo rode the wave of westernization, and it was considered classy to eat western-style food. It was mainly the upper-middle class who could afford such a luxury.
When western-style bakeries became more ubiquitous in Japan, Christmas cake became accessible to the general public as well as the prices dropped. Nowadays, sharing a Christmas cake with your family and/or friends has become a Japanese tradition enjoyed by many, and you will see all kinds of Christmas cakes in bakeries’ windows in December.
Traveling to Japan in Winter
The most popular seasons to travel to Japan are the spring and autumn. Temperatures are mild around these times of the year, and nature is beautiful with all kinds of flowers and blossoms in spring, and fall foliage in autumn.
This doesn’t mean that winter as a good season for travel to Japan should not be a thing, though! Besides enjoying illuminations and Christmas-related events, if you travel to Japan during the winter you will see smaller crowds everywhere including the most famous tourist destinations, hot springs give a wonderful way to relax with your head in the cool air while your body is submerged in warm water, and let’s not forget about the great winter sports resorts in Japan.
If you’re coming to Japan in any season, booking a private tour with an excellent local guide is always a good idea. They will be able to take you to highlights as well as lesser-traveled places, and we also offer specialty tours such as food tours. No matter what you are looking for, spending one of your valuable days in Japan with a private guide will be a good investment!
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Stefanie Akkerman moved from the Netherlands to Japan in 2013 with her Japanese husband and son. She jumped into the niche of Dutch tour guiding in Tokyo and Kamakura in 2015 and occasionally writes articles about all the great sights and activities Japan has to offer. She loves (Japanese) food, and to work that all off she goes diving, snorkeling, cycling, or hiking.
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