Celebrating Christmas in Japan

December means cool temperatures and dry sunny days in Japan, but the weather isn’t the only thing to get excited about at this time of year. Christmas is just around the corner and the festivities are already in full swing. There are plenty of similarities between Christmas in the UK and Japan – Christmas markets, parties with friends, sparkly illuminations lighting up the streets, and delicious food to enjoy. But there are a few unique differences too…

Osaka Umeda by cotaro70s : https://flic.kr/p/prUXAW

Christianity is only practiced by a tiny percentage of the Japanese population, so Christmas doesn’t have any religious connotations in Japan, and 25th December isn’t a national holiday either. The concept of Christmas was initially brought to Japan after World War II by Christian missionaries who enjoyed giving out festive gifts to school children and families. Adopting Christmas wasn’t for religious reasons though, but rather to symbolise prosperity after the austerity of the war.

Christmas Eve Date Night 

Christmas Eve in Japan is a bit like Valentine’s Day in the UK. Inspired by heartwarming Christmas movies, couples enjoy going on romantic dates and exchanging gifts with each other. In Tokyo, Disneyland is a popular place to celebrate – colourful character parades, firework displays, and light shows all make for a cute and festive couples day out. 

Gift giving on Christmas Day isn’t the norm in Japan, but there is a gift-giving tradition between work colleagues called oseibo where gifts are exchanged. Seibo means ‘end of year’ and this tradition takes place between the end of November and the 20th of December. Gifts are wrapped in red and white ribbons and are a lovely way for co-workers to express their gratitude for each other.

Tokyo DisneySea by nagi usano: https://flic.kr/p/8V7pAu

Christmas in the City 

German-style Christmas markets pop up across Japan during December, bringing a touch of European festivity to city centres. Enjoy a cosy, festive atmosphere, sipping on mulled wine, sampling tasty food and browsing stalls selling traditional gifts. Christmas markets take place up and down Japan in many of the big cities including Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka and Sapporo. If you’re heading to Hokkaido then the Sapporo Snow Festival is a must-see and you’ll get to experience gigantic ice sculptures (some over 15 metres high) lit up by multicoloured light displays set to music. 

In the capital, some of the most impressive illuminations are in Tokyo Midtown, Tokyo Dome and Roppongi. For the ultimate combo of shopping and dazzling illuminations, the Caretta Shiodome complex features a multitude of shops as well as a stunning light show set to music. 

Caretta Shiodome by annintofu: https://flic.kr/p/2hZu2vy

There’s plenty of illuminations to see outside of Tokyo too of course. One of the most spectacular is the Kingdom of Lights illuminations at Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki which boasts a jaw-dropping 13 million bulbs, as well as an impressive 30-metre Christmas tree. In Kobe, the Luminarie light festival attracts around 4million visitors a year and raises money from donations and merchandise sales for the victims of the 1995 earthquake. It’s one of the longest running illuminations in Japan and many of the lights were donated by the Italian Government. 

Kobe Luminarie by Marufish: https://flic.kr/p/7kvmrz

Indulge in Christmas Cake  

Strawberry sponge is Japan’s version of Christmas cake and is very different from the Christmas Cake we know and love in the UK – there’s not a raisin in sight! Japan’s version is a soft vanilla sponge, covered in icing, filled with cream and topped with strawberries. 

After World War II the Japanese economy stabilised and the ingredients to make this decadent cake became more readily available. Cake became a symbol of wealth and is now eaten on birthdays as well as over the festive season. 

Christmas cake by 8mitsu: https://flic.kr/p/vNqa3

Kentucky For Christmas

It may seem a little bizarre to eat KFC for Christmas dinner, but there’s a reason why Kentucky Fried Chicken is a hugely popular festive treat in Japan. Shortly after KFC first opened in Japan in 1970, Takeshi Okawara (the chain’s first ever branch manager) overheard a foreign couple in his store chatting about missing turkey at Christmas time. He dreamt up an idea to create a festive party barrel, and in 1974 the campaign went national with the slogan Kentucky For Christmas (ケンタッキーはクリスマス). Okawara eventually went on to become CEO of KFC and the Christmas party barrel has been on the menu ever since! 

This Christmas, KFC are offering customers party barrels for ¥4000 (around £25) which includes 8 pieces of fried chicken as well as chicken lasagne and a large chocolate tart. KFC for Christmas has become so popular that over 3.5 million families across Japan enjoy a Kentucky Fried Christmas, with some ordering weeks in advance or joining big queues to get their festive fried chicken fix!

Colonel Santa by Mark: https://flic.kr/p/dBAuj4

Celebrate Christmas with Japan Centre by browsing our online Christmas Guide 2021 which includes gift inspiration, our top ten drinks for the festive season, details about our upcoming events, and festive recipe ideas too.

You can enjoy all this and more by shopping in-store at Japan Centre Leicester Square, Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City. Alternatively you can get fresh produce delivered straight to your door by shopping online at the Japan Centre website.

Words by Emily Lovell

Header image: Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Illuminations by Manish Prabhune: https://flic.kr/p/qResfJ