The holiday season is such a gorgeous time to be in Tokyo, even if you might not expect it. Japanese people don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas (or Hanukkah) in the traditional sense of Christmas trees and wrapped presents, however, especially during the last five years or so, various neighborhoods of Tokyo have competed to produce the most elaborate holiday light displays, a tradition otherwise known as “illumination”. Characterized as thousands of glittering lights, projection displays, and sometimes even “digital choreography,” illumination occurs around the entire city, whether it is in the major shopping malls, small parks, popular streets, tallest buildings, or humble gardens. Even my tiny neighborhood park strings up a few flashing lights every year in the holiday season. In fact, if you are a regular commuter in the city, it’s nearly impossible to not see some form of illumination in Tokyo at least in passing. These holiday lights are typically switched on by mid-November and last at least until after the New Year (January 1st), with some lasting all the way until Valentine’s Day (February 14th). Although most people recognize Christmas as more of a family holiday, Japanese people tend to treat it as more of a romantic, couple-oriented event to go out and see beautiful light displays with your significant other. Whoever you decide to go with, illuminations in Tokyo are certainly not to be missed as they have become somewhat globally legendary for their excessive luxury and drama, if not pure holiday spirit. And don’t worry- if you are someone who cares about environmental sustainability, there are still options! In this article, I’ll give you a detailed history of illumination in Tokyo, my top suggestions for where to go, and even some tips about how to avoid the crowds and save money. Whether you are looking for Christmas extravagance or simply just homesick for holiday cheer, this guide to 2018 illuminations in Tokyo will help you choose a festive spot to enjoy yourself before the New Year.
One of Japan’s most interesting holiday traditions is undoubtedly illumination. If you are from a Westernized country, this tradition most accurately equates to the idea of stringing up Christmas lights on the front of your house, however, given the overall small size of most Japanese houses (and lack of display space), Japan has taken the tradition in a different direction entirely, and has begun creating intricate and impressive holiday light displays in public places, most notably in the parks, malls, and high-traffic streets of the city. Historically, this tradition is adopted from American culture (given American occupation of the country from 1945-1952), but purposefully overlook the typical Christian undertones of any Christian tradition, given that Japan is majority Buddhist. Light displays are one aspect of Christmas which Japan has embraced and arguably, has surpassed Westernized countries. Originally stemming from an imported holiday, illumination has since become somewhat of a competition between the major businesses and districts of Tokyo, all which “up-the-ante”, so to speak, every passing year. The result has been an even more impressive spectacle each year, with 2018 arguably being the finest. Most major spots in Tokyo have at least one (if not more) locations dedicated to the tradition of illumination, but even the further burrows of the city have smaller-scale local options. Regardless of where you choose to see the stunning holiday lights, make sure you don’t miss out on this uniquely Japanese tradition.
My Top Tokyo Illumination Picks for 2018
One of the most popular spots to see an exquisite Tokyo illumination is in Roppongi, particularly at Tokyo Midtown and the gardens behind the Midtown mall, otherwise known as “Starlight Garden.” As mentioned, Tokyo Midtown hosts one of the post popular illuminations as the mall also provides a nostalgic Christmas Market, and creatively designed Christmas trees throughout the shopping area. I recommend exploring the mall, but the most impressive portion is outside, in the gardens, which contain nearly 200,000 separate LED lights as well as other lanterns which are all turned on and off repeatedly to make a pattern effect. Starlight Garden tends to get crowded especially on weekend evenings, but if you can check it out on a weeknight evening, you should be able to secure a good spot. Interestingly, the special effect this year (most illumination events introduce at least one new special effect each year in order to be or become the best) at Tokyo Midtown is bubbles. Yes, simply there will be soapy bubbles blowing around outside the mall and throughout the park to accentuate the lights and add to the magical-fairytale themed gardens that children’s and adults alike are sure to be entranced by. Toyko Midtown’s mall and garden lights stay lit every day until 11:00 PM, but you should hurry to catch a glimpse because their shows typically end in mid-December, rather than carrying through Christmas like most other illumination displays. On the bright side, however, the lights are promised to be even more impressive this year given it is the 10th anniversary of illumination, as well as the fact that entry is free! There’s no reason not to check out this light and bubble display this year.
Rikugi-en Gardens is one of the most beautiful illuminations in Tokyo, particularly if you prefer nature landscapes to city streets. Rikugi-en means “Garden of the Six Principles of Poetry,” which seems particularly apt once you see the beautiful lit up autumnal colors of this park in illumination. This park is located in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, and is nearest to Komagome station on the JR Namboku line (it’s about a seven-minute walk from there). While there may be brighter or more elaborate displays elsewhere in the city, this spot is particularly special for its focus on enhancing the fall colors and brightening a beautiful park. The lights here and not over the top and in fact, an easy path through this magical forest is clearly marked and followed by visitors. You’ll encounter maple trees, a hill, a small river, and even food and beer stands throughout your stroll. Historically, this garden was created back in 1702 and is known as a prime example of a model Edo-period style garden. For this reason alone, it is particularly stunning to see such a historical area dotted with warm lights and light décor. If you plan to follow the Japanese tradition of planning a romantic date to see illumination, my top pick is Rikugi-en gardens, given its charming, subtle, yet classic character. Plus, the beer stands are very reasonably priced, and who doesn’t want a little alcohol for liquid heat while walking around on a cold night?
Shinjuku Terrace City
Perhaps you want to skip on the subdued walk through the natural gardens and see the true glitz, glamor, and bustle of a true Tokyo city illumination. If so, Shinjuku Terrace City illuminations are the place for you. In its 13th year of the illumination tradition, Shinjuku Terrace City includes the shopping area on the Odakyu Line side of Shinjuku station and boasts tree lights, terrace lights, and an Instagram-popular stretch from the stores MYLORD up until the Odakyu Department Store, tricked out with so many light displays that anyone can take a nice selfie. Apart from the good photo opportunities, this spot is a great one to support given that every single LED light used by Shinjuku Terrace City is powered by a renewable energy source, in conjunction with national conservation and sustainability planning. Shinjuku is the fashion and food capital of Tokyo, so even if you only observe the holiday lights on the streets from afar, it’s worth a visit. You can get a cup of Godiva hot cocoa, observe and judge all the trendy winter fashions, and enjoy the holiday lights. Plus, this display stays open until mid-February so there is plenty of time to see this romantic display. In fact, this year’s theme is “Be Connected” in honor of all the different types of people who live in the city, as represented through flowers. Lastly, it’s free! Why not go and make new friends? Otherwise, you have all the way until Valentine’s Day to find a date to bring to this special light spot.
One of the most highly recommended and legendary illuminations in the city is in the Caretta Shiodome, a shopping center which doesn’t skimp on its voltage and promises a family-friendly show starting every 15 minutes. Notorious for selecting popular culture themes, this year’s Caretta Shiodome illumination is based on the well-loved Pixar movies, Frozen and Tangled. Not only do the light displays aim to recreate the princess worlds of those movies, but there are also special song performances regularly throughout the evening, leaving you giddy on Disney tunes and fairytale endings. Easily one of the most popular spots to view illumination, the Caretta Shiodome has more than 250,000 LED lights and truly looks like a winter wonderland, no matter the theme. This is also a free illumination and you have plenty of time to see it, as it will also be up and running until Valentine’s Day. There is also a tunnel of lights to meander through with your romantic interest or family, leading to a mall with excellent food choices and holiday shopping. This illumination stays lit every day until 23:00 and is located a short walk from either Shiodome station or Shimbashi station, depending on which is more convenient for you!
Finally, if you want a classic skyline view of the city, yet still would like to feel the holiday cheer, head down to Odaiba to check out the impressive illumination right on Tokyo Bay. Claiming to cover more than 40 trees and using approximately 220,000 lights, the Odaiba illumination offers views including Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Skytree in the background. There is also an “Illusion Dome” in the center of the Seaside Deck, which boasts a 360 degree virtual and responsive winter experience, delighting any visitor into active participation. Finally, the pinnacle of this illumination spot is the annual “Memorial Tree,” which is actually the largest living tree in Tokyo at 20 meters tall and surrounded by smaller, brightly lit smaller trees, to frame the majesty and height of this particular tree. Perhaps the best mix between city and nature, Odaiba’s illuminations offer both skyline and forest views, all lit up with holiday colors and filled with families and couples alike, brightly lit until midnight every night until Christmas.
My Experience with the 2018 Tokyo Illuminations
Illumination in Tokyo is a magical and transporting experience that everyone should get to see at least once in their life. That being said, I hate the cold weather and constantly want more warm accessories or to be indoors with a heater. I tend to opt for any illumination events which include easy access to either hot chocolate, hot coffee, or alcohol. My favorite experience this year was at Rikugi-en Gardens, simply because I felt it complemented rather than overpowered the natural beauty of the changing seasons. Plus, as I mentioned, there was affordable beer, which is important. Make sure you at least wear gloves and a scarf (and maybe a hat) to any illumination you visit in Tokyo, but especially the more nature-centered ones that are likely to be less crowded on weeknights.
Of all the traditions in Japan, illumination may be my favorite one. There is something special about the weather changing and the city lighting up that feels magical and exciting, even if you are freezing most of the time. Tokyo is gorgeous in the autumn season, and illumination manages to catch the end of that fleeting beauty and offer some holiday cheer right as it becomes cold. Plus, these massive, complex, and fantastical light displays tend to get people in the city excited in a way you don’t experience at any other time of year. Considered a way to show off technological advances or even showcase a business, these light displays may have become a corporate competition yet do not fail to bring thousands of visitors awe and joy everywhere throughout the city.
ADP / United States