It's fair to say that Japan, a long-isolated Asian country founded on the principles of Shinto and Buddhism, isn't going to the top of anyone’s “places to visit at Christmastime” list.
And yet there are some ways Japan does Christmas better than anywhere else on Earth:
1. The Illuminations are Spectacular.
Every major city in Japan lights up like a Christmas tree every night of the year, so the actual Christmas illuminations must be extra special to stand out - and oh boy, do they ever! The planned displays that adorn the malls, streets and parks are nothing short of outstanding.
The Japanese have long had a knack for immersive, aesthetically impressive displays and for electronics, and when committing to a project, even a temporary one, it is never done half-heartedly. These all triangulate to create what is the ideal breeding ground for the most impressive use of fairy lights in the world. Where else can you see cherry blossom trees lit up pink as if they were blooming in December, or take control of the colors of the lights yourself through your phone?
2. It Segues Straight Into the New Year
I love Christmas, but I'll be the first to admit that the whole thing can feel a bit anticlimactic. All of that build up for one day and then it's over for another year? And after the New Year we’re plunged head first into a dreary and grim January. It's like heading out of an incredible party and straight into an office.
In Japan, at least, you're brought down gently. Here, Christmas is actually the precursor to the biggest holiday on the Japanese calendar: the New Year, known as ‘oshogatsu’ (お正月). Oshogatsu events and features are spread over several days in the first half of January, from the first sunrise to the first shrine visit of the year, from giving New Year greetings to friends and family to shopping for lucky bags known as ‘fukubukuro’ (福袋). So not only is there still much more to look forward to post-Christmas in Japan, you're also given a smooth transition from the holidays back to normal life.
3. People Don't HAVE to Celebrate Christmas; They WANT To!
Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, and it can be quite disconcerting to head out on December 25th to find shops open and cars commuting just like any other day.
So although all of the Christmas imagery and atmosphere can be found everywhere in Japan, it's just another day of the year here.
And yet...the people want to celebrate it. Unlike in western countries where the season of Yule is woven into the fabric of our lives and Christmas is foisted upon us whether we like it or not, Japan has adopted Christmas out of free choice. There's a sense of wide-eyed enthusiasm about Christmas in Japan, and it all feels so refreshingly earnest, as opposed to the eye-rolling and “here we go again” attitude we’re familiar with as we wrestle our way through the supermarket for the last of the frozen turkeys.
Christmas in Japan has its own unique appeal, and while it won't be competing with most of the world for festive cheer for some time, it's probably better that way.