Christmas in Japan is, more than anything else, a gigantic campaign promoting consumerism. That is to say, it’s a lot like Christmas everywhere else.
Yet, because there’s no legendary backstory or religious tradition behind the event, Japanese Christmas can feel lackluster to non-Japanese who grew up with stories of Jesus, Santa Claus, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Then there are those used to celebrating other wintertime customs like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule—holidays that aren’t represented in Japan at all.
If you’re visiting or living in Japan during the holiday season, things can feel a little odd because of how differently Christmas is treated. In Japan, Christmas morning isn’t a concept and Christmas evening is for taking your significant other out. That’s right, Christmas is actually the biggest date night of the year, even surpassing Valentine’s Day! Most workers don’t have a day off for Christmas, and nothing that screams “holiday cheer” less than people spending Christmas day slaving away at a desk.
This isn’t all to say Christmas in Japan can’t be a joyous celebration of gift-giving and camaraderie! It just means you’ll have to work a little harder to feel the festive spirit you’re used to. Instead of feeling homesick this holiday season, here’s how to do Christmas right in Kansai.
Sip mulled wine at Umeda’s Christmas market
If you’re nostalgic for a traditional Christmas atmosphere, look no further than Osaka’s annual German Christmas Market, which lights up the grounds outside the Umeda Sky Building. Centered around a giant Christmas tree, rows of traditional German-style huts serve up sausages, beer, pretzels, hot chocolate, and mulled wine. There are even small rides and a nativity scene. The event runs through to December 25th.
Buy a Japanese Christmas cake
Even if you’re on a budget or want to keep things low-key, there are options. Buying Christmas cake at a Japanese convenience store is a tradition that both locals and foreigners love to get behind. Traditional Christmas cake in Japan comes in the form of light and spongy strawberry shortcake slathered with cream, and these are cheap, delicious, and are often covered with festive decorations. If you’re looking for something a little fancier, check out a depachika (a department stores’ basement-level food court) for decadent cakes you won’t want to share.
Eat fried chicken at KFC
Yes, you read that right. Know what’s even bigger in Japan than going out on a date Christmas Eve? Eating a big bucket of KFC fried chicken. “Kentucky for Christmas” has been a thing in Japan since 1974, and has grown so popular that the fast-food chain takes Christmas pre-orders all month long (elaborate sets come with wine and shortcake!). If you’re missing your mom’s home-cooked Christmas dinner, fried chicken might be the next best thing. However, be prepared to line up!
Gawk at elaborate department store displays and jump on seasonal sales
Every winter, Japanese department stores go all out with the decorations. The best ones tend to be in Osaka and Kyoto Stations. The flagship Hankyu Department Store in Umeda is particularly festive. Christmas and New Year in Japan is also sale time. Most stores, big and small, will have some kind of winter or Christmas-themed promotion going on through the month of December. Then the big, exciting sales start on the first day the department stores reopen in the New Year—either January 1st or 2nd. This is when you have the chance to buy a fukubukuro—lucky bags filled with items from a particular brand or shop, which are priced far less than their value. It’s like a lucky dip as you can’t see what’s inside until after you’ve bought it. While you don’t always know exactly what you’re getting, it is always a bargain.
Team up with travel buddies to plan a gift exchange
If you’re traveling in a group or staying in a hostel, grab a few fellow travelers who also find themselves in Japan at Christmas and plan a gift exchange. Secret Santa, where members are randomly assigned a person to give a gift to, is a fun and easy option. Or there’s White Elephant (aka “Dirty Santa”), a game in which everyone purchases a small gift, wraps it, puts it in a pile, and takes turns blindly selecting one. The game is “dirty” because players have the option of choosing a new gift from the pile or stealing someone else’s.
Great places to shop for gifts are variety goods stores like Tokyu Hands and Loft. With a range of items and price points, you can’t go wrong.
See a light display
Illuminations are the most festive thing about Japanese winter. These resplendent displays light up the city streets for weeks or even months on end and often include light shows and projection mapping. The best in Kansai is the short-lived (and extremely crowded) Kobe Luminarie from December 6 to the 15. Other excellent Illuminations include Festival of the Lights in Osaka, located primarily in and around Nakanoshima Park, Osaka Castle Illuminage, and ROHM Illumination in Kyoto.