What is Christmas like in Japan? How to make the most of Christmas in Japan

With Christmas now only round the corner, it is time to start getting festive! And if you’re planning to be in Japan over the winter break, there’s no better place to start than with an article from us on the traditions and customs of Yuletide in Japan. 


Christmas Day is not a massive celebration in Japan like it is elsewhere, with Christmas Eve being the major day for festivities. However, instead of families gathering round to spend the day together, in Japan, Christmas is more like Valentine’s Day in the US and UK – couples will go out for dinner on Christmas Eve and exchange gifts, making Christmas a much more romantic celebration than a religious one. This is likely to come as a result of the fact that only one percent of the Japanese population identify as Christian, leading to fewer religious connotations at this time of year. In fact, December 25th is generally a normal working day, and if people decide to celebrate, the Christmas period is seen as a time to celebrate happiness and romance, rather than the birth of Jesus.

Having said this, Japan definitely knows how to put on a good show to recognise the importance of Christmas around the world, and so Japanese people and companies go to great lengths to create fantastic illuminations. Some of the most well-known shows can be seen at Tokyo Station, the Kaiyuken Aquarium in Osaka, and at the Nabana no Sato Flower Garden near Nagashima. These spectacles will start appearing from mid-November and last right through until February, brightening up the darkness of the deep winter. 

Image by Yair Cerón from Pixabay

What to do and see

Of course, do go and hunt down some of the decorations and illuminations, but here are some other events that could be on your agenda. First up are some of the Christmas Markets, which are very similar to those that are held around Europe. The big Tokyo Market in Hibiya Park is open from 11am every day from December 9th until December 25th, so there’s plenty of time to get some shopping done. This specific market is in fact sponsored by the German Tourist Association and German Embassy, which undoubtedly help to coordinate the delivery of a 14-metre-high Christmas Pyramid from a village all the way over in Germany!

Another place that shouldn’t be missed at Christmas time is Tokyo Disneyland – be sure to dress up and bring something impressive to wear on your head as you soak up the atmosphere of the park. Head over to rides such as Space Mountain, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Splash Mountain and Monsters Inc Ride & Go Seek, before dining at Grandma Sara’s for a jam-packed day of Christmassy fun. Make sure you also catch a glimpse of the spectacular Christmas Stories Parade as well, which features all of your favourite Disney characters dressed up in their best Christmas attire. 

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, head up to the northern end of the country and the coast, where snowfall is frequently plentiful. To enjoy this weather to the full, have a look at some of the ski resorts in the country, which are renowned for excellent powder skiing. Some of the most popular resorts found in the northern island of Hokkaido are Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano, with the snow originating from storms in Siberia. 

Image by Sam Chen from Pixabay

Christmas Food

Food is often one of the intrinsic aspects of Christmas for people worldwide, and in Japan, this is no different. However, if you’re anticipating tucking in to a roast turkey with all the trimmings, you will be in for a surprise. This is because, since a hugely successful 1974 advertising campaign, KFC has been a staple Christmas dinner for Japanese people! An estimated 3.6 million people will dig in to what is known as a ‘party barrel’, which generates a staggering 33% of KFC’s annual sales in the Land of the Rising Sun. You won’t want to miss out on the fun, so make sure you book your dinner six weeks in advance because the queues can get very long on the day! 

In Japan, after copious amounts of KFC comes the Christmas cake, but instead of being a dense fruit cake covered with marzipan, Japanese people enjoy a layered sponge cake decorated strawberries and whipped cream. This tradition developed after World War II when sweet treats were seen as a sign of prosperity and how Japan’s economy was recovering after the war. The cake is called ‘kurisumasu keki’, and it is particularly popular given the fact that the colours mimic the colours of the Hinomaru national flag. 

Christmas Music

Another quintessential aspect of Christmas are all the tunes and songs that we’ve come to know and love, and this is the same in Japan. While Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ and Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ are still firm favourites, other contenders for the most-loved Christmas songs come from Japanese artists as well. The late 1970s and early 1980s seem to be the hey-day for the genre, with Yumi Matsutoya’s ‘My Lover is Santa Claus’ and Tatsuro Tamashita’s ‘Christmas Eve’ still heard ringing out throughout the country. The latter also makes reference to the well-known carol ‘Silent Night’, linking some more of Japan’s festivities to German traditions.

The theme of Germanic music continues into the classical side of the art as well, with Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’ being so popular during Christmas time that it is simply referred to as ‘daiku’ (meaning the ‘number nine’). ‘Ode to Joy’, which comes from the fourth and final movement of the symphony, is also unbelievably well-known and is in fact sung in the original language of German throughout Japan. It is thought that the Symphony and Ode became popular in Japan as a result of German prisoners of war in World War I singing it at the Bandō Prisoner of War camp to celebrate Christmas. 

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Japanese New Year

The coming of the New Year is much more widely celebrated in Japan than Christmas, with families coming together, postcards being sent to loved ones, and businesses shutting from January 1st until January 3rd. One of the most popular attractions on New Year’s Eve are the bells that ring throughout Japan from Buddhist temples. The bells ring out 108 times to symbolize the 108 earthly temptations in Buddist belief, with 107 tolls coming before midnight, and the final one as the new calendar year begins. Presents are also given to celebrate New Year, with otoshidama being a customary gift. This involves relatives giving money to children in a small, decorated envelopes, called pochibukuro, which are often sums of more than £30, or $35. Keep your eyes peeled for large kites, spinning tops and images of the Takarabune Treasure Ship as well, as these are all popular symbols of the New Year.  

Photo by Eric Schroen on Unsplash

We hope this article has opened your eyes to Christmas in Japan, and so now all that’s left to do is to plan your rail trip around Japan, book your train tickets and go explore. Don’t forget to wish people a ‘Meri Kurisimasu’ and a ‘Akemashite omedetou’ when you visit!