Christmas in Japan – How to Enjoy Christmas Traditions in Japan

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Christmas in Japan: it’s an interesting time to visit, but Christmas traditions in Japan are probably different than you’re accustomed to. Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? Well, yes and no. While not a national holiday, you’ll see lots of Christmas decorations in Tokyo, in Osaka and in other Japanese cities. That said, the food and social events associated with Japan during the Christmas season are quite different than in the West.

Below you’ll find an excerpt from my column in the Japan Times where I talk about things to do around Christmas in Tokyo. After that, I add a primer on Christmas traditions in Japan. If you plan to visit Japan in December, then this should help you prepare.

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Christmas in Japan

For my column this month (November 2018), I point out some kid-friendly events for those spending Christmas in Tokyo. Yet as I read through the piece to prepare an excerpt for this blog, I remembered that many of my readers know very little about Japan’s Christmas traditions and it’s relationship with the Christmas season. For example, what are Christmas traditions in Japan? What’s the most popular Christmas food in Japan? Do people set up Christmas trees in their homes? Is there Santa Claus in Japan? Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan at all?

In this post, I’ll talk about Christmas traditions in Japan and what it’s like to spend Christmas here. Then I’ll add an excerpt to my column in the Japan Times about holiday things to do with kids in Tokyo for Christmas.

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Christmas Traditions in Japan

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The holiday season is special here, but Christmas traditions in Japan have evolved quite differently than they have in the West. Here’s a primer on what to expect while in Japan at Christmastime.

Christmas Illuminations in Japan are Amazing

Christmas in Japan means lots and lots of lights. The entire country gets into it, but the best Christmas illuminations in Japan are in major cities like Tokyo, Kobe, and Osaka. Millions and millions of lights are used, brightening riversides, parks, shopping centers and more.

Christmas Image > Christmas Story

The origin of the Christmas holiday is lost on most Japanese people. Less than 2% of Japan’s population is Christian, with most estimates hovering around 1%. You’ll see nativity scenes here and there, but the emphasis is more on the Christmas aesthetic. You’ll see Christmas trees, loads of pretty lights (more on those below) and other elements of holiday design.

Let Them Eat Cake: Christmas Cake in Japan

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On Christmas Eve, many Japanese people eat Christmas Cake. This is usually a white-frosted sponge or angel food cake with strawberries. The white and red are part of the Christmas aesthetic. The cake’s popularity took off decades ago when the colors and American image of prosperity made it a must-have in any home. Now you’ll find Christmas cakes sold all over the country. It’s one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Japan and one of the most popular Christmas food in the country.

Winner Chicken Dinner: Christmas in Japan Means KFC

You read that right. Christmas in Japan means KFC for many people. By “KFC” I mean Kentucky Fried Chicken, and by “many people” I mean millions. KFC is popular all over Asia. That itself could be a post all in itself (or even how the statues of Colonel Sanders are incorporated in local cultures). But we’re talking KFC and Christmas in Japan here. The origins of why people eat KFC in Japan at Christmas are murky, to say the least. What we know is that it started in the 1970s. There was an ad campaign, of course, Nevertheless, it may have started earlier when expats went searching for anything resembling a Christmas turkey. KFC, it seems, was the closest they got. However it started, don’t be surprised to see KFC and Christmas in Japan closely linked. You’ve been warned.

Romance — Not Family — is Christmas in Japan

For most locals, Christmas in Japan is more about having a fancy dinner with your girlfriend than gifts under the tree. Seriously. Sure there are sales and people trying to sell you Christmas presents. That said, most marketing around Christmas in Japan deals with restaurant and hotel packages. It’s a dating holiday. When you see Christmas-related ads on the subway, they’ll mostly be populated by young couples holding hands.

But what about family time? Sure, there is an element of family, giving and charity associated with Christmas in Japan. Yet for most Japanese people, the big family holiday is New Years’ Eve.

Is Christmas a National Holiday in Japan?

No. It’s a regular work day and school day in Japan. Some Westerners fly back to their home countries or elsewhere for the holidays. But the majority of people carry on like it’s any other day. When we lived in Tokyo (2001-2013), we always had to formulate a plan around how to manage Christmas in Japan. Some years we worked/went to school through it, but most years Keiko and I did our best to arrange days off near December 25th. Some years

Are there Christmas Trees in Japan?

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Yes, but not in the homes of your friends and neighbors. Sure, some people may have one, but it’s likely plastic and just for decoration. Where you’ll really see Christmas trees in Japan are at shopping centers and public squares. And they can get quite interesting, and shall we say, unconventional. Some may have an anime or Star Wars theme. Others may consist of all Hello Kitty or other uber-cute abomination.

My favorite Japanese Christmas trees are examples of when Christmas Japan flexes its tech side. For example, this is where Christmas trees become holograms or projection mapping onto large buildings. In some parts of Asia — Taiwan comes to mind — Christmas was a big deal…kinda. Many ambitious citizens put a Christmas tree in their house to mimic the prosperity of the West. Some Japanese did this too. But now they’ve incorporated what they want of the aesthetic (and the sentiment) into the Christmas season in Japan.

Do People Give Gifts at Christmas in Japan?

christmas gifts in Japan christmas traditions in japan

Some people, sure. I mean come on, do you think Japanese shops, supermarkets, and department stores are going to give up on this opportunity? There are sales all over, and loads of Christmas gifts in Japan to give. But in general, no, you won’t find the typical Japanese family waking up Christmas morning to unwrap gifts sitting under a tree.

That said, there is a Japanese gift tradition during this season. The biannual customs of Ochugen (お中元 in the summer) and Oseibo (お歳暮 around New Year ) are more common. Yet despite the cultural pull of Christmas gift giving in Japan, both have stayed more practical. At every supermarket and department store in Japan, you’ll find “gift sets” for the occasions. Instead of iPhones and trendy presents, you’ll find sets of beer, juice, high-end fruit and cooking oil. Sure there are more extravagant ones, but usually, they are around the ¥5,000 yen (approx USD $50) or under. Businesses give these to clients (and vice versa) as well. Working for a Japanese company for 13 years, I usually thought of them as a commercial transaction, but families and neighbors give these just as much. If not more.

Things to Do in Japan During Christmas

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There are lots of things to do in Japan during the holiday season. I mention these in several of my Japan Times columns (links below). But if you haven’t seen those, then here’s a quick breakdown.

Illuminations

Like mentioned above, Christmas in Japan is all about the illuminations. There are incredible light displays all over the archipelago, often use creative themes or are set to musical accompaniment.

Christmas Markets

The Christmas season in Japan is also marked by dozens of European-style Christmas Markets in Tokyo, Osaka and many other major and minor cities. Here is where you’ll see Christmas trees in Japan, as well as places to buy Christmas ornaments. You can also imbibe in traditional Christmas beverages and food, such as mulled wine and crepes.

Ice Skating

There is a long-standing tradition of ice skating in Japan. You can go ice-skating in Japan year-round, but during the Christmas season, there are loads of temporary rinks set up outdoors.

Skiing & Snowboarding

Skiing in Japan at Christmas can elicit feelings of the North Pole for sure, as nearly half the country is inundated by powder for all of winter.

Christmas Concerts

Japanese people love classical music, and there are major Christmas concerts in every major Japanese city. And not-so-major city. Want to see the Nutcracker with the Russian ballet company? Not that hard in the usual year. Or perhaps you’d prefer pop classics or Bach? It’s happening every year. Then, of course, you have the Disney Parks which have their own performances, as well as the parades mentioned below.

Christmas Events at Disney, Universal Studios and Other Amusement Parks

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Traveling to Japan with kids? Or just a grown-up fan of Mickey and company? Both of Tokyo’s Disney Parks — Tokyo Disney Land and Disney Sea — put on their own spectacles in only the way that the big mouse can. Same goes for Universal Studios in Osaka and many of the home-grown amusement parks. Sanrio Puroland, home of Hello Kitty, does its own Christmas-inspired performances. I’ve never seen their Christmas parade or other holiday events, but I’ve been to Sanrio Puroland many times and highly recommend going. Am I a Hello Kitty fan? Not at all. But the place is just so bizarre and over-the-top that it’s a must see in Tokyo.

From the Japan Times

As winter settles in, some families in Japan are preparing for the festive season. For many in the country, Christmas in Tokyo is about romantic dinners, frosted pastries, and fried chicken. But there are many families who also enjoy Western Christmas traditions such as decorating the tree, carols and gift giving. Even though it’s not a holiday in Japan, for those here, Tokyo offers lots of ways to get in the Christmas spirit.

Christmas Markets in Tokyo

Christmas markets are festive and family-friendly. Sure, they may be fueled by beer and mulled wine for moms and dads, but they are still fun for kids and full of holiday cheer. You’ll find toys and ornaments for sale, with lights and music to keep everyone merry.

The Christmas Market at Yebisu Garden Place (on until Dec. 25) has been running for almost 20 years. Expect a 10-meter tall Christmas tree and a dazzling 5-meter tall Baccarat chandelier. For a larger and more traditional-looking market, head to Hibiya Park. From Dec. 14 to 25, you’ll find all the snacks and holiday trappings, as well as carolers. It gets quite crowded but has more space along its periphery for kids who need to run around.

Want to head somewhere more modern? The Solamachi Christmas Market at Tokyo SkyTree is a great one to visit after enjoying the SkyTree’s displays of 520,000 LEDs and projection mapping of a floral holiday tree. Roppongi Hills is also home to one of the most popular Christmas Markets in Tokyo. There you can enjoy a schnitzel and Viennese crepe as you celebrate the season.

All these Tokyo venues are great, but our favorite Christmas market is the Red Brick Warehouse in Yokohama. Perhaps it’s the seaside setting or the red brick buildings themselves that give it a more festive feel.

This is just the first 300 words of the column, read on to learn about the best Christmas illuminations in Tokyo. Also where to go ice skating and possibly see Santa Claus.

Read My Entire Column in the Japan Times 

Have You Spent Christmas in Japan?

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Were you in Japan for the Christmas season? Where did you go? I’ve been in Tokyo for Christmas many years (we lived there 2001-2013) but haven’t spent Christmas in Kyoto or other Japanese cities. Have you? What’s it like to spend Christmas in Osaka or Christmas in Kobe. Tell me about it in the comments below!

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Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This costs you nothing, but we may get a small commission if you make a purchase of book a room or in Japan at Christmas using these links. As always, my opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help you get the most out of Japan during the holiday season. 

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