Written by Mo Stone
Although Japan may be best known for it’s spring and autumn, there’s still plenty to see in the winter. The weather in many of the bigger cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto remains mild enough for sightseeing, and the snowfall in regions like Hokkaido and the Japan Alps bring many skiers and snowboarders to the country. Adding to that are winter festive occasions throughout Japan. Read on for what to do for Christmas, New Year’s, and all season long.
On Christmas: Go to Nagasaki
As only a tiny portion of Japan’s population identify as Christians, Christmas is not a widely-celebrated religious holiday, although it has been gaining popularity as a commercial holiday. To really experience Christmas Japanese-style, head to Nagasaki. This city on the western side of Japan is where Christianity was first brought to the country via Portugal in the 16th century – and was also the site of persecution and hidden Christians during the Edo era. Currently, there is a rather large concentration of churches and other Christian sites to see in the pretty port city.
Chriss, one of our translators here at Borderless Translations, once visited during Christmas. “I could feel the whole town of Nagasaki city being festive but calm and spiritual,” she says. “I went to a mass on Christmas eve. It had this strong sense of oneness, and was nothing like I had experienced in churches in Tokyo.” In addition, fans of holiday lights and spectacles should visit Huis Ten Bosch, a faux-Dutch theme park in Nagasaki, for their annual Christmas illuminations and displays.
On New Year’s: Go to a Shrine or Temple
Japanese people don’t really go in for blow out parties on New Year’s Eve. Instead, do what the locals do, and visit one of Japan’s countless temples and shrines for hatsumode, the custom of visiting a temple or shrine for the first time in the new year. The most popular day for this annual pilgrimage is January 1st, but if you wish to avoid the crowds at well-known destinations you can go anytime between January 1st-7th. It doesn’t matter if you go to a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine, a big, iconic one in Tokyo or the tiny one nestled in a residential area, as all religious places in Japan partake in this tradition.
When visiting for hatsumode, there are a number of activities you can do, such as giving an offering and praying for the year ahead, purchasing an amulet or ema plaque, and drawing an omikuji, a paper fortune to predict your luck for the new year. Also, if you choose to visit a Buddhist temple on New Year’s Eve, you may be able to partake in the ringing of the temple bell. Traditionally, the bell is rung 108 times, an auspicious number in Buddhism, beginning at midnight, and many temples allow visitors and congregants to take a turn.
Throughout the Winter Season: Take in an Illumination
All through the season, from about November to January, you can see something unique to Japan: winter illuminations. These illuminations are fantastic lighting displays that take over streets, shopping centers, and even amusement parks. It’s quite a festive sight to behold, and as they’ve grown in popularity, they’ve also grown in spectacle and beauty each year. Many are free, such as in Tokyo’s Midtown or on Midosuji Street in Osaka, but some of the biggest and best, like at Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi, do cost an admission fee. Seeing a winter illumination is a great idea for a family outing or a romantic date!
What are some of your favorite winter celebrations in your country? Tell us in the comments below!