You might be surprised, but Christmas has been adopted by Tokyoites despite being such a traditional Western celebration. The city glows with its famous illuminations, more and more Christmas markets seem to appear each year and you can even swap sake for mulled wine. But, you’re still in Japan after all, so don’t expect a Christmas like you’ll have at home! The weather in Tokyo at Christmas is generally cool, dry and sunny, and with little rain you should be lucky to see the snow capped peak of Mount Fuji on clear days! You’ll still need to wrap up warm to spend your evenings exploring the different illuminations, but there’ll be no freezing temperatures or snow.
If you’re here in Tokyo in December and want to follow the Japanese calendar a little, there are certainly ways to experience the local traditions of this time of year alongside the Western calendar. You may be surprised, but December is strawberry season, and so many locals will go with their families or friends to pick strawberries! They are grown in greenhouses, but strawberry picking something different and a fun thing to do which will give you a taste of local life. The other uniquely Japanese tradition over Christmas that you need to remember is that the 24th of December is known as Lovers’ Day. Instead of traditional Christmas Eve celebrations, it feels like date night for the whole city, as almost every Tokyo couple goes out for dinner and spends the night in a hotel. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most expensive days to find accommodation, and restaurants will be fully booked a long time in advance.
There is one local tradition in particular which is really special, and you’ll want to congratulate yourself for booking your trip over Christmas so you experience this hidden gem. The 23rd of December is the Emperor’s Birthday, and this is one of only two days of the year when the Imperial Palace Grounds are open to the public. For 363 days of the year, the Imperial Palace is a forbidden zone, shrouded in mystery and still home to the Emperor himself, but on his official birthday the gates are flung open and you can explore the palace grounds. Experiencing a glimpse into this hidden and historic site is something not to be missed!
But that’s certainly not to say that you can’t find a festive atmosphere in the city during December - especially when you’re gazing at the dazzling Christmas Illuminations and trees. The Tokyo Illuminations are without a doubt the most magical experience you could wish for, and it’s an absolute local tradition to spend your December weekends visiting the different areas to see each of the spectacular illuminations. These light displays are simply gorgeous, and if you’re not completely in the Christmas spirit yet you certainly will be after seeing these! They’re spectacular, extravagant light displays made up of literally thousands of lights, and different areas will have slightly different themes which are often companied by musical performances and even moving objects.
My favourite is at Shiodome near JR Shimbashi Station, where a small area is literally carpeted in lights and looks like something from another world. Others you should try to see are at Ebisu Garden Place which has more of a classic feel to it, with the park’s trees lavishly decorated with lights, and at Odaiba which are where you’ll normally find the biggest Christmas tree too. No photo can ever do the illuminations justice, and a lot of the festive spirit comes from going with your loved ones, maybe picking up some street food like oden - a one pot dish of broth and things like fishcakes, vegetables and egg and a winter favourite - (although not all of the illuminations have street food). There’s just something so special about walking around the city at this time of year, it will be something you’ll never forget.
There are also plenty of Christmas markets to explore, as traditional, European wooden chalets and mulled wine are a firm imported favourite! But instead of Western decorations and gifts, why not do some Christmas shopping and pick up some uniquely Japanese gifts? The most famous market is of course the Christmas market under the Tokyo Sky Tree, which is a German style festive extravaganza complete with a giant tree and German Christmas treats to indulge in. Another one to visit is the Tokyo Christmas Market, which even features a Christmas pyramid which actually comes from one of the markets in Dresden in Germany, as well as plenty of glühwein!
Although you’ll be able to enjoy a very different style of Christmas, but a Christmas nonetheless, you really should try to avoid spending your New Year in Tokyo. As an extremely important tradition in the Japanese calendar too, pretty much everything in the city closes down from the 1st to the 3rd of January as the locals are busy celebrating with their families. New Year is taken seriously, and if you’re in Tokyo over this period it can feel like a bit of a ghost town. Hotels are also super expensive, and if you’re looking for a guide to show you around, you certainly won’t find one willing to work on these days! My tip? Head to the mountains and spend your New Year skiing - Nagano is just two and a half hours from Tokyo on the bullet train, and you’ll find a much more festive atmosphere there.
Christmas dinner Tokyo style may surprise you! It’s become traditional to eat KFC on Christmas Day, and it’s even so popular that you have to order in advance and reserve your fried chicken! It may seem odd, but eating chicken is the local interpretation of a Westerner’s turkey feast. With some clever marketing a few decades ago, KFC managed to persuade Tokyoites that fried chicken really is what foreigners eat on Christmas Day, and now it’s a local tradition that you really can’t miss. If that’s not your thing, you can also buy whole roasted chickens in supermarkets, and it’s the only time of year you can buy these. The Western Christmas cake has also been adopted, but of course has been given a Japanese twist. It’s much smaller, and much lighter since we don’t pack as much brandy soaked fruit into our version. It’s then topped with a mountain of whipped cream and decorated with fresh strawberries.
It certainly won’t feel the same as in the West, but Christmas in Tokyo is certainly a spectacular sight to see and you’ll be swept up in the magic of the season whatever you get up to!
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