Christmas in Japan: Everything You Need to Know
Japan might not be the first place you think of when you begin planning for your Christmas holiday. But surprisingly, the Asian nation goes all out over the festive period.
Christmas is a Christian holiday, and in Japan there are few Christians to be found. Christmas in Japan is therefore very much a secular affair. But even though Christmas Day isn’t even a public holiday, there’s lots going across the country.
This is a time of love, friendship and family. The Japanese decided to embrace all the best aspects of the holiday, while removing its religious connotations. The Japanese will hand out presents and send Christmas cards, and there are Christmas markets and Christmas cakes. Bizarrely, KFC is the number one Christmas meal, while no Christmas holiday is ever complete inJapan without a trip to Tokyo Disneyland.
Here’s everything you need to know about Christmas in Japan.
Christmas in Japan has only really been a thing since the 1960s, when commercialisation after World War II led to the increasing adoption of American customs over the festive period.
The Japanese haven’t been celebrating for long, but they have some unique Christmas traditions. Given that this is a time for sharing and for celebrating love and friendship with friends and family, the Japanese have an affinity for sending Christmas cards and buying Christmas presents in December.
Given the commercialisation factor, this is big business in Japan. Presents and cards have no religious overtones and are simply an expression of happiness.
The Japanese will spend a lot of time with family and friends over the festive period, and Christmas has become a much-loved time and an excuse to shower each other with gifts.
There are many more traditions too, with markets, illuminations and decorations all incredibly popular.
What Do the Japanese Do on Christmas Eve?
The Japanese celebrate Christmas in their own unique fashion. Actually, it’s Christmas Eve that can be the most important day in December for many.
That’s because Christmas Eve is a day for lovers to express their love for each other, in a similar way to Valentine’s Day. In fact, this is often billed as the Japanese Valentine’s Day, and it’s a day that many will be planning months in advance.
Christmas Eve is a day and a night for romanticism, and people will go all out to impress their dates or partners. Love is well and truly in the air across Japan, and all the best restaurants in town will have been reserved weeks in advance of 24 December.
The Japanese take dating seriously at the best of times, and even more so on Christmas Eve. If you don’t have a date and you’re out and about, then you’re going to look a little out of place!
If you do have a date, then it’s time spoil them. Go to the best restaurants and bars, buy them a few special gifts, and shower them with kindness. If you have a date or a partner, then 24 December usually takes precedence over the 25 December, so be prepared and be ready if you’re on a special luxury vacation in Japan on Christmas Eve.
What Happens in Japan on Christmas Day?
While Christmas Eve is for couples and lovers in Japan, Christmas Day is a time for friends and family. Usually though, it’s a time for friends, because in Japan, New Year’s Eve is family time, when everyone gathers together to celebrate the start of a new year.
One reason for this is the simple fact that Christmas Day isn’t a public holiday, whereas New Year’s Eve is a public holiday across the country. So the end of the year is a better time for families to unite when everyone has the day off work.
Christmas Day is still celebrated where possible. In fact, for many years 23 December was the celebration of the birthday of the Emperor. However, his abdication means that the new Emperor’s birthday is celebrated on a different day.
For many decades, people would have the 23 December off work, and would use this as an opportunity to have a longer holiday between the Emperor’s birthday and New Year. This helped Christmas Day to become more widely celebrated across Japan.
On the day, friends will gather together – or in the evening, if they have to work – and will celebrate by giving each other presents and cards. They’ll also enjoy an almighty feast of Japanese-style Christmas food.
What Do the Japanese Eat at Christmas?
But Christmas is really all about the food, and Japan is no different to the rest of the world when it comes to the age-old tradition of eating as much good food as you can over Christmas.
Rather than eating traditional Japanese foods however, it’s often western food that’s on the menu. Traditional Japanese foods are reserved for Japanese occasions, and Christmas is very much an import festival in Japan.
Don’t expect to find an American or British-style Christmas roast, or any sort of European Christmas food either though, because the western food on the menu is always fast food.
KFC and Pizza
Christmas is a time to indulge in the worst of consumerism and to gorge on pizza and KFC. While you might take your date to a fancy restaurant on Christmas Eve, come Christmas Day it’s party time and that means party food!
Food that can easily be shared is always popular, which is why huge pizzas covered in toppings of meat and cheese are always a winner on Christmas Day.
The most peculiar custom though is the association of Christmas with KFC. This is the ultimate Japanese Christmas tradition, and also the ultimate form of consumerism because in the 1970s, KFC, newly arrived in Japan, began a huge campaign to promote fried chicken at Christmas.
The Japanese were swept up in the Americanness of it all, and KFC’s Christmas adverts and huge sharing buckets have become the stuff of legend in Japan.
But KFC is so popular on Christmas Day that it’s imperative to order your fried chicken in advance because otherwise you’ll end up disappointed, with no sharing bucket to pass around on 25 December.
It’s not all savoury food for Christmas Day in Japan though. After pizza and KFC, the most popular food item on the menu is Christmas cake. It’s not quite how you might expect to find your average Christmas cake either, because this isn’t the dried fruit variety you find in the UK and other English-speaking countries.
Japanese Christmas cake is completely different, but equally delicious. The Japanese version is known as Kurisumasu Kek, and it’s a light spongy cake with a cream filling. The cream doesn’t end on the inside though. The outside of Japanese Christmas cake is also covered in thick layers of whipped cream. On top of the cream, there’s a layer of fresh strawberries to round off the cake. It’s sweet and delicious.
The Best Places to Experience Christmas in Japan
There’s a huge range of destinations to consider if you are planning on spending Christmas in Japan. There’s also a fantastic array of activities to enjoy, from Christmas events to skiing or bathing in hot springs.
There’s no place like the capital to spend Christmas. While Tokyo is a fantastic city to visit any time of the year, in December there’s a real buzz of anticipation in the air.
Many of the streets are completely decked out in Christmas lights, decorations and extravagant illuminations, while across the city there are huge German-style Christmas markets selling great food and hot mulled wine, amongst many more attractions and rides.
A visit to Tokyo Disneyland is one of the most popular things to do in Japan over Christmas. The theme park is one of the largest in the country, and for years it’s been drawing in visitors looking to experience its rides and to see that Disney magic.
Over Christmas, the theme park is transformed into a beautiful winter wonderland with all manner of Christmas-themed rides and attractions.
Head north to Hokkaido for a real winter wonderland. The northernmost island is cold in December, but you can enjoy a white Christmas and even go skiing at the many resorts found in the mountains.
The largest city, Sapporo, celebrates Christmas in style too, and you can expect Christmas markets and plenty of lights and illuminations.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
For a truly unique experience, head to Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is one of the most iconic attractions in Japan. Located in Yamanouchi, this is the famed snow monkey park, where local monkeys gather to bathe in hot springs.
In winter, there are more monkeys than any other time of year jumping into and bathing in the natural hot springs. If it’s been snowing, the scene is wonderfully unique and fantastic to witness and photograph.
While the monkeys have reserved their hot spring, the surrounding region is known for its thermal spas and there are a range of traditional Japanese onsen in the nearby valleys and towns. After a cold winter’s day spent exploring Yamanouchi, there’s nothing better than relaxing in Japanese hot springs to warm up again.
Christmas markets are an increasingly popular event in Japan over the festive period. Almost all major Japanese cities and many smaller towns have a dedicated Christmas market through December.
Over Christmas, the Japanese love to adopt customs from around the world and make them their own – and it’s no exception with the markets. Japan takes its inspiration from classic German markets, which the country seems to have an enduring love affair with.
Tokyo is the best place to visit for Christmas markets and you’ll find several German-themed markets around the city. You can expect gingerbread houses, lots of German bratwursts and other German sausages, and plenty of hot mulled wine to keep away the chill.
Japan is known for its extravagant Christmas Lights, and the country has really embraced illuminations as a way to brighten up the short, dark days of winter.
Again the lights are purely secular, but you’ll find everything is Christmas themed. Entire streets are illuminated brightly in shades of blue, green or red, while there are enormous festivals dedicated entirely to illuminations and light shows.
The most impressive light shows and illuminations are in Tokyo and Osaka, where you can find many festivals and many Christmas markets lit up brightly at night.
The Weather in Japan over Christmas
In December, it’s cold in Japan. But if you’re looking for authentic, winter weather over the Christmas period, then it’s the perfect place to be.
The further north you travel, the colder it’s going to be. If you’re searching for a white Christmas then you’ll have a big chance in the north of Hokkaido. In fact, it’s likely to be well below freezing in Hokkaido, and many places will experience serious amounts of snowfall. You can even spend your Christmas skiing, with slopes here to rival anywhere else in the world.
South of Hokkaido, things are warmer but still chilly. In Tokyo, it’s incredibly cool but unlikely to drop below freezing, and it’s warmer still the further south you travel. Head to the islands of Okinawa, and temperatures are still hovering around 20 degrees Celsius, giving you the chance to enjoy a hot and sunny Christmas, if snow isn’t your thing.
Is there snow at Christmas in Japan?
There is only snow in the far north, in Hokkaido, where heavy snowfall can begin in December.
Do I need to book events in advance?
You will want to book tickets for some light shows and theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland in advance to be sure of getting a place, as Christmas is busy.
Do I need to order my KFC in advance?
Yes! This is the most important Christmas meal in Japan, and the buckets have to be pre-ordered.
Japan isn’t your average Christmas holiday destination, but it is one of the most fascinating places be over the festive period because few other cultures celebrate in such unique and unusual ways as the Japanese!