The build up to Christmas — and holiday decorations — in Japan has officially begun. Gaudy? Yes. Over the top? Most definitely.
And yet, even then, there’s still something about the uniquely Japanese way in which Christmas is celebrated here that always brings a smile to my face. So, join me as we run down five beautiful attractions and illuminations to keep you occupied in the Kansai Region this Christmas.
1) Kobe Luminarie 2017
One of the things I have always admired about the Japanese is their uncanny ability to create beauty and hope from instances of tragedy. The Kobe Luminarie was created in the aftermath of the great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, when much of the city centre was destroyed as a way of bringing hope and positivity back to a city in pain.
These days it has become an essential annual trip for families, couples and friends alike. Beginning near Motomachi Station, and running all along the street to Higashi Yuenchi Park, Kobe Luminarie sees the entire neighbourhood lit up in a stunning display of lights and patterns.
Entry is free, however the event only runs for a little over a week, so expect big crowds and be sure to wrap up warm, as it will inevitably be very cold in December in Kobe.
Location: Higashi Yuenchi Park, near JR Motomachi Station.
Date: Dec. 8-17
2) Osaka Festival of Lights 2017
As a city that never passes up an opportunity for a good party, Osaka is also getting in on the festive spirit again this year, with the return of their highly popular Festival of Lights.
The Festival incorporates a variety of events all across the city such as street performances, illuminated boat cruises and other things. However, the main focus of this year’s festivities will once again center around two main attractions: The Midosuji Street Illuminations and the Osaka Hikari Renaissance.
As the name would suggests the Midosuji Street Illuminations run the length of Midosuji Street one of Osaka’s main roads, that connects the Shinsaibashi and Umeda districts. The street is usually packed with shoppers in the evenings, but if you can find the time, it makes for a pleasant walk of about 20 or 30 minutes, with ample opportunities to stop of for food, drinks or a bit of shopping along the way.
As was also the case the last year, Osaka Hikari Renaissance once again takes up residence in the Nakanoshima area, in and around Osaka City Hall and running along to Nakanoshima Park. Entire buildings will be decked out in stunning light displays, and a variety of live music and other performances are planned throughout the festival’s two week run.
Location: Midosuji Street, Nakanoshima Park
Date: Nov. 12 to Dec. 31 (Midosuji Street), Dec. 13 to Dec. 25 (Osaka Hikari Renaissance)
3) Tempozan Christmas Illuminations
Osaka’s famous Aquarium, The Osaka Kaiyukan, has long enjoyed a reputation as a popular dating spot for courting couples on Christmas Eve. However, in recent years the nearby Market Place Shopping Centre has also been getting in on the act with its own Christmas Illuminations. The lighting display incorporates some of the fish, whales and other sea life featured at the nearby Kaiyukan as well as some absolutely adorable penguins. And of course no such display is complete without an appearance from Santa Claus himself.
The centerpiece to the display is a series of archways, which light up as you walk under them. The last of these archways is said to be something of a fortune teller. If you’re a couple then the colour of the final gate as you pass under it determines how compatible you are likely to be, with red being the best, and blue the worst. Though in most cases the light comes out as green or orange.
The shopping centre also has a number of Christmas themed events for kids running over the weekends throughout November and December. The Tempozan Ferris Wheel, one of the tallest in Japan, will also take on a more festive theme for the holiday season.
And of course no Christmas Eve date in Japan is complete without the obligatory Fried Chicken, courtesy of the centre’s KFC outlet which has already started taking reservations for Christmas Eve.
Location: Tempozan Market Place and Osaka Kaiyukan, five minutes walk from Osakako Station, Subway Chuo Line.
Date: November 1st to January 10th.
Admission: Illuminations free, Kaiyukan ¥2,300. Tempozan Ferris Wheel: ¥800. Or buy a combo ticket of Kaiyukan and the Ferris Wheel for ¥3,000.
4) Kyoto Botanical Gardens
Although it is a stunning site to visit at any time, Kyoto Botanical Gardens take on an all new kind of beauty during the festive season. In a display utilizing more than 110,000 individual lights, the gardens become their own special little winter wonderland. Santa and his sleigh join snowmen and a host of other Christmas characters for one of Kyoto city’s most memorable holiday season highlights.
The gardens cover a huge area, so be sure to set aside a couple of hours to see everything. If possible, I recommend going there in the late afternoon and then staying on to see the Christmas lights after sunset.
Location: 5 minutes walk from Kitayama Station, Karasuma Subway Line.
Date: December 15th to December 25th
5) Christmas at Piole Himeji
The sprawling shopping mall Piole, overlooking JR Himeji Station, has a variety of Christmas shows and events between now and the end of the year. First up, to coincide with the national holiday on Nov. 23, visitors can enjoy a variety of illumination shows across the building’s rooftop gardens.
The amazing illumination show runs from Nov. 17 to Dec. 25, with a special “Aurora Show” taking place from Nov. 23 to 26. A special illumination concert will also be held on Nov. 23 in the evening.
From Dec. 9 to 17, the more fleet-footed among you can skate the night away on the rooftop “sky rink” a large ice rink next to the illuminations.
Of course there’s also the usual range of shops, restaurants and bars that one would come to expect from a typical upmarket shopping mall. So, whether you’re looking for some all-important Christmas presents, or perhaps a little bit of relaxation away from the stress of shopping, Piole Himeji offers both in abundance.
Location: Next to JR Himeji Station
Date: Nov. 17 to Dec. 25
Admission: Free (¥500 for skating)
Christmas may not necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind when one contemplates visiting the Kansai region, but these are just some of the many events going on up and down the region between now and the big day on Dec. 25.