Tokyo Over the Holidays: What to Expect and Look Forward To
December in Japan is a muted holiday season by most standards. For most visitors, this comes as a welcome change to the constant carols and everything wrapped in Christmas decorations you find in other cities. Yes, the Japanese celebrate Christmas and you will find decorations and lights. However, their take on it is slightly different. So what is Tokyo like over the next few weeks? Here are some points on what to expect and look forward to, along with some practical tips to make the most out of your holiday:
December 24th is Date Night
In Japan, both December 24th and 25th are regular working days, although in some ways it feels like December 24th is the bigger day than the 25th. During the Bubble Era, Christmas Eve was considered the most romantic night of the year. A young couple would have nice dinner, maybe a stroll under the Christmas light, and then hussle off to a hotel, which had been reserved six months to a year in advance. That the story of a homeless, pregnant young woman and her partner looking for shelter (i.e. Joseph and Mary) is connected with romance is a good example of how Japanese interpret a holiday. Churches holding Christmas Eve services will be packed with the aforementioned couples -- not necessarily devout Christians or Christians at all -- out on a date. The church service is treated as an event to go to, pretty much like a concert before or after the romantic dinner.
Expect long lines in cake shops, supermarkets, KFC, and convenience stores as people pick up their pre-ordered Christmas cakes (the most classic one composed mainly of an airy fluffy cake, whipped cream and strawberries) and buckets or trays of fried chicken (the result of an extremely successful advertising campaign) for an elaborate dinner with family. Yes, you read that right: Only in Japan do you pre-order from a fastfood joint and convenience store (You have to love Japan). On the upside, presents are not expected to be given or exchanged as much as in other countries.
Christmas Ends on December 25, But Thankfully Not All the Christmas Lights
When does Christmas really end? In the tradition of the Catholics, some keep their decorations until January 6th, Epiphany, when the Three Kings present the baby Jesus with their gifts. Some for a week or two longer longer if you wait for the start of the "Ordinary Time Liturgy." Non-believers in other countries where Christmas is celebrated tend to keep their Christmas decorations at least until the festivities of the New Year.
The holiday season in Japan is about is wrapping up the year and getting ready for the next. This is why you will witness something quite astonishing on December 26th: Not a trace of Christmas. Gone. All gone. No trace of sales on Christmas cakes, candies, or decorations. No bargain sales related to Christmas. They treat Christmas as someone’s birthday, not a way of commerce. What you will find on December 26th are decorations related to bringing in the new year. And throughout the month of December, bonenkai (forget-the-year parties) are an opportunity for people to get together to look back over the year. In most cases they become opportunities for people to consume large quantities of alcohol and blow off steam. As a visitor, you will meet your fair share of drunk businessmen (almost always men), some of who may want to practice English with you. They are harmless. This is not the normal state of affairs. If wish to see elaborate displays of Christmas trees, reindeers, and Santa Clauses, get your fill before then. Shops have been known to start taking down the decorations on the 25th.
Some grand Christmas light displays though (which Japanese refer to as "illuminations") run from November into the new year, something to enjoy during the long dark, cold winter days. And they're free! Here are some popular spots in Tokyo to view the lights this year. Expect them to be crowded especially during the weekends.
Tokyo Skytree. From December 1-25, projection mapping displays on the tower can be viewed every half hour between 17:30 to 20:00. The surrounding areas of the Skytree are also illuminated.
Roppongi Hills Artelligent Christmas, features some 1.2 million LEDs, and runs from November 7 to December 25.
Tokyo Midtown Illumination's Starlight Garden, features 510,000 blue LEDs and a makeshift planetarium set up, and runs from November 15 December 25.
Chuo Street near Yurakucho/Ginza. If you're in the area, check out the impressive Christmas trees at Mikimoto and Maronnier Gate Shopping Center. Illuminations run from November 10 to February 18. The Yurakucho Center Building hosts a light display from November 9 to February 14.
Omotesando Hills's "100 Color Christmas Tree Forest" (features 1,500 trees scattered all over the complex of high-end stores). Runs from November 8 to December 25.
Tokyo Plaza Omotesando Harajuku's "Omahara Forest" (features 1,600 LEDs in a forest themed design). Runs from November 17 to February 28.
Shinjuku's Terrace City Shopping Center. Illuminations run from November 15 to February 22.
Yebisu Garden Place's "Baccarat Eternal Light" illumination, featuring a gigantic crystal chandelier, runs from November 3 to January 8.
Tokyo Dome's "Brightly Sweets" illumination runs from November 9 to February 18.
New Year's is A Quiet Family Affair
If you are used to lively drunken countdown parties and rowdy revelry to end the year with your Japanese friends, you may be disappointed. New Year's is all about family, both immediate and extended. Japanese go back to their hometowns (if they're not native to Tokyo) and spend it with their families, eating toshikoshi soba (wash the hardships of the year away soba), watching NHK's 4.5 hour long red and white song battle program, and heading to the temple for the joya no kane when a large bell is rung 108 times to purify listeners of the 108 earthly desires they symbolize. For this reason, Tokyo will seem less crowded (except in shrines, temples, and shopping centers -- see below ), more peaceful. The next morning, they are likely to wake up early to watch the first sunrise, then head to a shrine or temple for the first visit -- both opportunities to express their wishes and hopes for the coming year. It can be a beautiful shared experience even among strangers.
If however, you really wish to join a countdown event to welcome 2018, here are some places to check out. Some are free but some require tickets to be purchased ahead of time.
Hanayashiki Amusement Park in Asakusa
Shibuya crossing (an unofficial event)
Shangri-la Hotel Tokyo
Tokyo Bay Countdown Cruise
Nightclubs in Shibuya and Roppongi
If you've always been worried about catching the last train, New Year's Eve is the one day of the year you need not worry. Most subway and train services in central Tokyo operate all night long in 20-40 minute intervals.
The busiest time of the year for shrines and temples
Gone are the days when everything shuts down for three or more days at the start of the year. Some small mom and pop shops still do but nowadays, you don't need to worry about stocking up for the first few days of the year as most supermarkets are open, but with shorter hours so do check the holiday hours of the stores you wish to visit. The first three days are the quietest days of the year in most parts of Tokyo and lots of streets where offices and businesses are located will look vastly different with hardly anyone out and about. The air is cleanest then too, so this is the best time to view Mt. Fuji.
That said, the areas near shrines and temples will be pretty congested. Three million of Meiji Shrine's ten million yearly visitors come in the first three days of the year. Expect heavy traffic around these areas.
The Shopping Frenzy Called "Lucky Bags"
To avid shoppers, the first day of the year is the time to get fantastic deals from their favorite shops via the fukubukuro or "lucky bag." For a set price, customers purchase a bag with no idea what's inside. The retail value of the items in the bag, however, always exceeds the price paid for, but by how much is when you can get really lucky. Of all the retailers offering lucky bags, Apple is probably the most legendary. For ¥35,000, it is possible that your lucky bag might contain one of a handful 11-inch MacBook Air (worth ¥80,000+). It is this possibility that people line up for, way before New Year's Day (the earliest reported line for Apple's lucky bag started on December 25), camping outside the store in good weather and bad. Lucky bags are limited, thus the madness of lining up. Clothing retailers include season appropriate items categorize their lucky bags by gender and by size so everything inside the lucky bag is something you can wear. But whether or not you will actually wear them is a different question. On January 2nd, another madness ensues: swap meets to trade unwanted items from lucky bags. If you don't like crowds, it's best to avoid shopping districts the first week of January.