Christmas is a wonderful time of the year to visit Japan, there are so many things to do from more well-known commercialized activities to special Japanese traditions. There’s something for everyone when exploring Japan at Christmas.
Here we’ll take you through some of the best things to see and do during Christmas time in Japan, covering what to do on Christmas day itself as well as the festivities that run throughout the holiday period.
Is Christmas celebrated in Japan?
Although only approximately one percent of the Japanese population actually identifies themselves as Christian, the Christmas holiday is still celebrated in Japan, as a much more secular and commercialized holiday. This means that the image of Santa Claus is much more prevalent than Jesus Christ and this is reflected in decorations and celebrations.
Whereas Christmas is traditionally celebrated with family in the West, with relatives coming from afar to spend time together, in Japan Christmas is seen as the day to get together with friends and celebrate.
As people grow older and form relationships Christmas day transforms from a day spent with friends to a day spent with your loved ones and immediate family, attaching a much more intimate meaning to the holiday.
In fact, Christmas eve in Japan is seen as a day for couples to spend together and is their equivalent of Valentine’s day.
This is then countered by the celebration of New Year which is celebrated with friends in the West but with family in Japan. The New Year’s celebrations are very important among families in Japan and their importance has not been lost with the inclusion of Christmas celebrations in the Japanese calendar.
However, for those of the population who are Christians, there are churches open and services held throughout the holiday season to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Yet these associations with Christmas are much less widely seen in the commercialization of the holiday and decorations are much more secular.
What are the Japanese Christmas traditions?
Although for most Japanese citizens Christmas is not a religious holiday, there are still many traditions that make the holiday fun and full of interest and a great time to be in the country.
Here we will list some of the best and most interesting Japanese Christmas traditions so that you can get a greater appreciation for how the Japanese celebrate this special season.
Just like in the West, the Christmas cake is an essential part of any Christmas celebration in Japan. Christmas cake, or kurisumasu keki as it is called, can be found on just about every corner bakery or shops in Japan, so it will be easy to purchase when the season arrives.
Unlike the Western fruit cake or chocolate log, the Japanese Christmas cake is much lighter and is a fluffy sponge cake that is decorated with whipped cream and topped with strawberries and miniature decorations.
Although you can find these cakes all over Japan they are a show of prosperity as they became very popular after the second world war when Japan began to rebuild itself.
These types of cake are also very popular treats to use to celebrate birthdays. As such, you can often find these types of cream cakes in Japan year-round.
KFC for Christmas
One thing that you may have already heard of is the phenomenon that is KFC for Japanese Christmas. Unlike the cooked roast turkey dinners in the West, many Japanese people actually eat KFC for their Christmas dinner.
This came about after a very successful advertising campaign in the 70s which presented a bucket of fried chicken as a replacement for the roasted turkeys or hams used in traditional Western Christmas dinners.
In fact, for many people, this is the center of Christmas in Japan, and every year more than 4 million Japanese people eat KFC for their Christmas meal. The tradition has become engrained in Japanese culture thanks to the fact that it bears a striking resemblance to a traditional Japanese meal of fried meats shared by families.
Many people have also grown up eating KFC at Christmas when they were a child in the 70s and as a result has grown to associate fried chicken, Christmas and happy memories. This means that they have passed the tradition down to their children as a way to bring a little bit more joy to the holiday period.
The demand for KFC at Christmas is so high that the company starts offering preorders to its products up to six weeks in advance of Christmas day as well as including special holiday menu items and deals.
All over Japan, there are Christmas markets that run from the very beginning of the holiday period to the end. They are very similar to European Christmas markets in that they sell everything festive that you can think of from spiced wines to tree decorations.
In fact, one Tokyo Christmas market is actually sponsored by the German Embassy and Tourism Association.
The Tokyo Christmas markets run from the 16th to the 25th of December and are open between 11 a.m. and 11 pm. and are held in Hibiya Park.
If you are looking for something rather magical when visiting Japan over the Christmas period then look no further than the beautiful displays of lights.
The entire country really gets behind decorating and so you will find illuminations just about everywhere from shopping centers to streets and even restaurants. There are beautifully lit decorations just about everywhere you look that will truly help you to get in the Christmas spirit.
These lights are typically on display from the middle of November until Valentine’s day. You can normally find both traditional string lights and signs as well as illumination displays timed to music.
Some of the major landmarks, such as Tokyo Station, have their own special illuminations that are definitely worth a visit.
Japan is an amazing destination to do your Christmas shopping. You will be able to find just about any type of gift to suit the recipient, be it more commercial gifts or a souvenir that is related to Japanese culture.
Most people in Japan exchange presents with each other on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas morning. However, there is also the tradition of a secret Santa style exchange held in December.
Children still get to experience the magic of Santa Claus as this tradition has increased in popularity. However, as most Japanese homes do not have western-styled fireplaces or chimneys it is said that Santa in Japan is a type of gift-bringing ghost that visits children’s homes and gifts are left overnight. These presents are then opened on Christmas day.
However, the popularity of New Year’s celebrations in Japan means that most people choose to exchange gifts at the New Year’s get-togethers rather than the Christmas one as this is when families traditionally spend time together.
If you find yourself near Tokyo around the Christmas period then it might be worth a trip to Disneyland Tokyo. Here you will be able to find not only the much-loved rides and characters walking around and interacting with visitors but also beautiful displays of lights and decorations.
Disney’s Japanese Christmas celebrations are called “Christmas Fantasy” and they are certainly magical. The idea behind this theme is children’s storybooks which are brought to life in the park.
Just about everything here becomes Christmas themed from the food to the music and even holiday merchandise. There are even firework displays late at night.
What is the weather like in Japan around Christmas?
The weather in Japan around Christmas will depend on where you are travelling to within the country. For example, if you are heading up north (Hokkaido) then the weather will be much colder than in the southern cities and you will experience a lot more snow.
If you are planning a sunny and dry Christmas then heading south is a good idea. However, if you are looking to experience the snow and go skiing or snowboarding then head north as there are many great ski resorts to be enjoyed.
How is Christmas celebrated in pop culture?
Although many traditional Western Christmas songs are popular in Japan and played throughout the festive period, there are also a number of Japanese Christmas songs that are very popular.
In terms of tv, there are always a large number of Christmas specials for popular television shows and there are even anime Christmas episodes for some of the most popular series.