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Christmas in Japan

Despite its Christian origin, Christmas (クリスマス) is a very popular holiday in Japan, although with particular and unique nuances in the world. The Christmas atmosphere begins to spread across Japanese cities as early as November, when shops and streets are filled with twinkling lights and festive decorations. Christmas Eve is above all a romantic event, and many couples celebrate by booking elegant dinners and exchanging gifts. Christmas Day is often a day like any other, although there is no shortage of bizarre traditions such as chicken from the fast food chain KFC. Throughout this article we will explore the particular customs related to Christmas in Japan.

How Christmas is clebrated in Japan

Christmas in Japan is a fascinating and unique experience that blends Western traditions with the distinctive touch of Japanese culture. The Christian culture is not widely spread in the country, so for the Japanese, the religious aspect of Christmas doesn't exist. Nevertheless, Christmas in Japan has become a widely celebrated holiday in its more secular and commercial facets, with unique interpretations and customs. Characters like Santa Claus mix with local traditions, creating a captivating fusion of cultural elements. Manga and anime often feature Christmas stories, contributing to spreading the holiday among younger generations. European-style Christmas markets, with wooden stalls selling handmade products, gingerbread, and other typical foods from Central and Northern Europe, are also becoming increasingly popular.

The Christmas Lights Becoming Winter Art

The Christmas atmosphere takes over Japanese cities starting from mid-November, as shops and malls begin to decorate with lights and themed ornaments. Around mid-November, Christmas illuminations also start to be inaugurated. Decorations and lights are generally removed shortly after December 25, but some Christmas illuminations last much longer. Some of these installations, especially the larger and more famous ones, remain open well beyond the Christmas period, sometimes until mid-January and in some cases even until the end of February, creating a magical atmosphere that lasts throughout winter. It's no wonder that a term increasingly used in Japan is "Winter Illuminations." Light projects sometimes incorporate advanced technology and artistic design, transforming places like parks and malls into fairy-tale settings with light tunnels, luminous trees, and installations that capture the imagination of anyone visiting. These lights, initially inspired by Christmas, are no longer simple Christmas decorations. They have become luminous works of art. If you visit Japan in the winter, look for the largest and most famous illuminations in the city you are in. In Tokyo, illuminations at Roppongi Hills, Caretta Shiodome, and Shinjuku Southern Terrace have been very popular for many years.
christmas illuminations in nishi shinjuku christmas illuminations at shinjuku southern terrace
christmas illuminations in nishi roppongi christmas illuminations in shiodome spectacular Christmas illuminations in Tokyo: Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku Southern Terrace, Roppongi, Shiodome

Christmas Eve Like Valentine's Day

The evening of December 24 is experienced by many couples somewhat like Valentine's Day. Japanese couples celebrate by going to elegant restaurants, enjoying Christmas lights, exchanging gifts, or spending the evening in a nice hotel. Unlike Western countries, gift exchange usually occurs only within couples, not among friends, and it is not common to give gifts to children.

December 25: Work, KFC Chicken, and Cake

December 25 is not a public holiday in Japan, although many companies grant their employees a day off during this period. If you are lucky and have the day off, you might spend it with family or a loved one, perhaps eating KFC fried chicken and a sponge cake with strawberries. However, the custom of spending Christmas with family is not deeply rooted. Many Japanese simply don't care and treat December 25 like any other day of the year. Christmas is also very close to the traditionally more important holiday for the Japanese, New Year's. New Year's is the time when families gather, and virtually all public and private offices, as well as many shops and restaurants, remain closed, typically from December 31 to January 3 or 4.

Culinary Christmas Traditions in Japan

There are no mega Christmas lunches as commonly seen in Christian countries. Culinary traditions are probably the most bizarre and extravagant part of Christmas in Japan. They can be summed up in fried chicken from fast food and strawberry cake.

Christmas with KFC

KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) is an American fast-food chain specializing in chicken found all over the world. What does KFC have to do with Christmas? In 1974, when Christmas in Japan was already known but still relatively "new", this company launched an incredible advertising campaign nationwide, which, absurd but true, ended up creating a tradition. KFC's marketing campaign turned its fried chicken into a true Christmas ritual. So don't be surprised if on December 25, you find long lines to eat at this fast-food chain. While in the United States or Europe, spending Christmas day in a fast-food restaurant might be one of the saddest things to wish for someone, in Japan, this unusual and fun food tradition is the most normal thing to do.
kfc menu offer for christmas in japan KFC Christmas meal advertisement

Christmas Cake

Another fascinating Christmas tradition in Japan is to enjoy a delicious "Christmas Cake" (クリスマスケーキ, kurisumasu keki) on December 24 or 25. This cake typically consists of a soft sponge cake covered with whipped cream and garnished with strawberries and other Christmas decorations. During the Christmas period, you can find this relatively simple recipe cake for sale everywhere. Pastry shops, supermarkets, cafes, and even individual portions in the refrigerated sections of convenience stores offer it.
Christmas Cake as a eerogatory term
The term "Christmas Cake" sometimes takes on a less positive shade in the Japanese language, where it is occasionally used derogatorily to refer to women over 25 years old. This metaphorical connotation refers to the supposed loss of attractiveness of a woman after her 25th birthday. The metaphor suggests that, just like a Christmas cake after December 25, a woman may be considered less interesting, an outdated and sexist perspective.
japanese christmas cake a typical Japanese Christmas cake

Christmas Greetings in Japanese

There is no Japanese kanji for "Christmas," and the most commonly used greeting is the English "Merry Christmas," with a typical Japanized pronunciation, so "merii kurisumasu," written in katakana (メリー・クリスマス) or often directly in the Latin alphabet.

Japanese Christmas Songs

Very popular in Japan are the songs Jingle Bells and All I Want For Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey. Additionally, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Christmas songs created by Japanese groups. Below is a version of Jingle Bells sung in Japanese and two typical J-pop Christmas songs sung by Nozomi Sasaki and the idol group Momoiro Clover Z.

Guided tours, activities and other things to do

If you are planning a trip to Japan and you want to do something more than just visiting famous places and monuments, we suggest you to use Rakuten Travel Experiences.

How to use Rakuten Travel Experiences

Rakuten Travel is a very useful website to enrich your travel experience, especially if you are going solo or it's your first time in Japan.
Because of the language barrier (and more), in Japan it is very difficult to interact with the locals and to get off the tourist track.
Thanks to Rakuten Travel you can find a lot of interesting and sometimes unique guided tours and activities all over Japan (and not only in Japan), that you would otherwise never be able to enjoy.
But there's more: on Rakuten Travel you can also buy tickets for several famous attractions, events, transportation and other useful services for tourists. Last but not least, you can reserve a table in hundreds of restaurants.

Some examples

Take a look at Rakuten Travel Experiences

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