If you look at official information about religion, you will find the Japanese are predominantly Buddhist or Shinto. If you ask me, I would say the Japanese are not religious at all, at least not in the way it is generally understood.
They take from all religions and celebrate all religious holidays in their own unique way. Births and new years are celebrated with Shinto traditions at a Shinto shrine. Burials are predominantly Buddhist. Weddings are a mix of Shinto and Christian style (first at a shrine in a kimono and then in a white wedding dress in a chapel).
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Christian holidays have made their way slowly into the land of the rising sun. While a couple of years ago no one in Japan knew what Easter was (or Halloween and Valentines Day for that matter), in a commercial sense it is now celebrated in Japan.
The same is true for Christmas. This post will answer all the questions you ever had about how to celebrate Christmas in Japan if you should ever be there during Christmas season.
You will notice Christmas in Japan starts quite early, as is the case lately in other countries. From the end of October, even before Halloween is over you might see the Coca Cola TV commercial on TV. From the first of November you get Christmas inspired drinks at your favorite Starbucks store and supermarkets start stocking up on Christmas themed snacks and drinks. Department stores and other shops will start decorating for Christmas as well.
Compared to other countries Christmas in Japan is over quite fast. When Christmas Day is over on the 25th of December all the decoration come down at once. Why? Because it is time to decorate for New Years, a much more important celebration on the Japanese holiday calendar.
For me this was very strange because in Germany Christmas is basically celebrated all the way through to the beginning of January.
Commercial Christmas in Japan
The Japanese know how to make money from Christmas and how to get people into the Christmas spirit. Although I have to say that it feels a little bit fake compared to Christmas in Germany.
But still, there are Christmas songs and Christmas decorations and lights in department stores and on the streets. There is a Coca Cola Christmas commercial on TV. And like I mentioned before, there are also Christmas themed drinks at Starbucks. I especially love the Gingerbread Late but this year’s special Raspberry White Mocha is also delicious.
Let’s admit it. For most children around the world who celebrate Christmas it is mainly about receiving gifts, am I right?
In Japan in recent years, gift giving has also become more the norm than the exception. This is especially true for children who get toys and other things from their parents, very similar to other countries.
But Christmas in Japan is mainly a holiday for couples (more about that below) and it is also quite common that couples will exchange gifts on Christmas day.
I don’t know why but apparently Christmas markets in Japan are associated with Germany only. In the big cities like Tokyo (Christmas Market in Hibiya Park or Roppongi Hills Christmas Market), Osaka (Osaka Umeda Christmas Market) and Yokohama(Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market) there are yearly German Christmas markets, and they are doing a very good job of capturing the European Christmas atmosphere at these markets. There is hot wine and sausages sold from wooden booths as well as shops selling Christmas decoration and Christmas presents. The Christmas songs (either performed live or from speakers) remind me of Christmas at home and the smell of Christmas is heavy in the air. Now the only thing missing is the snow.
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Christmas Lights in Japan
The illuminations in Japan in winter are amazing. Thousands and thousands of little colorful lights create amazing pictures in the streets and parks all over Japan.
One of the most famous is the illumination at Nabana No Sato in Mie Prefecture close to Nagoya. This illumination is held every year during the winter months under a different theme, and we have been visiting it regularly over the past 3 years and we love it every time. It is such a romantic experience.
Name: Nabana No Sato (なばなの里)
Admission: 2300 Yen (including a 1000 Yen food voucher)
Opening hours: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Address: Mie Prefecture, 511-1144 , Kuwana city, Nagashima cho, Komae Urushibata 270
Close to the office where I work there is a street illuminated by thousands of lights hung up in the trees. When walking along this street you can see many people who just take a walk admiring the lights, but also couples who take professional pictures in their wedding outfits it is such a popular and romantic location in Tokyo.
These two are just examples. There are many more amazing illuminations all over Japan and they are a perfect spot to visit during your trip to Japan in winter and of course if you want to celebrate Christmas in Japan.
How to Celebrate Christmas in Japan
So how do the Japanese spend their Christmas eve and Christmas day? They don’t gather with their family around a Christmas tree and exchange presents, eat some big Christmas dinner and go to church.
What? You don’t do that either? I guess every country is very different when it comes to Christmas traditions, and Japan also has their own tradition on Christmas day.
The Japanese if they celebrate Christmas at all will spend the day with their boyfriend or girlfriend going on a romantic date like the movies, shopping or dinner. Going to an illumination and just spending some quality time together is what Christmas in Japan is all about. Some couples might even exchange presents.
How we Spent Christmas in Tokyo
In 2017 Christmas Day was a Monday, so we decided to go on a romantic Christmas Eve date. First we went to Tokyo Dome City, a place we visit every year around Christmas. There is a wonderful illumination, shopping facilities and a theme park. We usually ride the ferries wheel, but this year, because we visited on Christmas Eve it was so crowded that we decided to skip it. We didn’t want to stand in line for over an hour.
We also had a Christmas dinner at a fancy Teppanyaki restaurant close to our house. They had a special Christmas menu for the occasion. If you are interested in going to a nice restaurant on Christmas Day in Japan make sure to make a reservation.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Going to a fancy restaurant is not necessary the norm in Japan. They have other traditions that sound very strange to everyone who isn’t Japanese.
It must have been an incredible marketing campaign of Kentucky Fried Chicken, because every Japanese person associates Christmas with eating chicken, and most of these people really eat Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas.
If you ask Japanese people about this custom, they will say something along the line of “Aren’t Americans also eating chicken on Christmas?”
So I am thinking, what the Japanese understand as chicken on Christmas probably came from the custom of eating turkey on Thanksgiving. I can’t explain it any other way.
While the people in Germany bake different kinds of Christmas cookies around Christmas (starting at the beginning of December) the Japanese have their own kind of sweet associated with Christmas: The Christmas cake
The Japanese Christmas cake is eaten on the 25th of December and can be ordered in advance at convenience stores, supermarkets or online. Of course, you can also go out and buy it in a store on the 25th.
The cake is usually a strawberry short cake with lots and lots of cream and costs around 3000 Yen (30$).
I am not a big fan of cakes with so much cream, and I definitely prefer my German Christmas cookies to Japanese Christmas cake.
By the way, there is a thing in Japan that unmarried girls over 25 are called Christmas cakes, meaning no one will be interested in them anymore after 25. The understanding is that Christmas cakes can also not be sold after the 25th of December.
To Sum Up Christmas in Japan
Christmas in Japan is very different from Christmas in other countries. But it is a unique and fun experience. If you ever happen to be there make the best of it and celebrate Christmas like the Japanese would. On a date, with Christmas cake and maybe some Kentucky Fried Chicken.
By the way, if you are planning a trip to Japan and you are still looking for the perfect itinerary have a look at my 2 weeks in Japan itinerary. I put it together from my experience of traveling within Japan extensively over the past 3 years. This itinerary will give you the perfect mix of modern and tradition, with lots of delicious foods and other unique experiences.
And if you are still looking for hotels have a look at booking.com they have the cheapest prices for each hotel:
If you have any questions about Christmas in Japan let me know in the comments below. I might have some further tips for you what to do and where to go!
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None of the experiences in this post are in any way sponsored and have all been payed for by myself. The opinions stated are all my own and have not been influenced in any way.
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Lena is the creator of the Social Travel Experiment. Planning her trip around the world took a lot of effort. To make it easier for future world travelers she has made it her mission to teach others how to have an unforgettable trip around the world, through short stays with locals, without wasting valuable time or money.