Winter is already here and the best way to celebrate it is, of course, to decorate all the city streets with colorful bright lights to express the joy of the season. While all countries do their best to impress their citizens with the blindingly bright decorations, there is something about the holiday season in Japan that makes Japanese illuminations stand out from the rest.
There are tons of places where you can see decorated Christmas trees and buildings lit up like in a fairyland across Japan. There are probably on every shoutengai (shopping street) but some of them are outstandingly beautiful and are worth mentioning.
Here are my top 4 illuminations in Japan in case you are preparing to celebrate the 2016-2017 holidays in the Land of the Rising Sun.
This one is probably one of the most well-known illuminations throughout Japan, at least from a foreigner’s point of view. Funny thing is that 90 percent of my Japanese friends have never managed to go see it, but almost all of my foreign friends have been there at least once.
The tricky part is that Nabana no Sato is placed somewhere close to Nagoya (名古屋), and unless you live and stay in the area, it is quite difficult to access.
Nabana no Sato is actually one of the 4 parts of the Nagashima Onsen Resort (ナガシマリゾート), a place extremely popular during the summer. As the name of the facility also explains, there are several onsen places where you can enjoy a hot bath, an amusement park which also includes a water park (no wonder it’s so popular during summer), a shopping mall (well, what better than some shopping after a day spent having fun in the water), and finally, this amazingly beautiful flower park called Nabana no Sato.
Here is how it looks during the summer:
Pretty, right? Some would say it resembles the famous flower park, Keukenhof, from Belgium.
However, once the holiday season takes over, the landscape changes into a surreal combination of lights, projections, and holograms.
Yes, that’s Mt. Fuji. Well, actually, a projection of it. But still pretty impressive.
The park is covered in light bulbs smartly placed to create a dreamy atmosphere. The light-up of the surrounding nature (trees, bushes) and buildings add up to this amazing tableau.
There are also two tunnels of light, as they are called, and walking through them makes you feel like you are teleported to a fantasy land where light covers everything without boundaries. The lights create the impression of a never-ending tunnel, which in other circumstances would be quite a scary thing, but in this case, you can trust me, you’d wish the path went on and on forever.
How can you go there? First, you should reach Nagoya (by Shinkansen or bus, whichever you prefer), then there is a shuttle bus from Nagoya Station which takes you directly to the Nagashima Onsen Resort. Or you can take the train from Nagoya to Nagashima (6 stations, around a 20-minute ride), then hop on the public bus which will leave you right near the facility.
Unfortunately, the entrance is not free of charge. It will cost 2,300 yen, for which you will also receive a 1,000-yen coupon that you can use at any shop or restaurant within the facilities. There is also a combined ticket (train/bus + entrance) which can save you up to 1,300 yen depending on where you are coming from.
The illuminations last probably longer than in any other place in Japan, from October 15, 2016 to May 7, 2017, so if you haven’t planned your trip yet, you still got time.
This one is a bit different as it was not initially designed as illuminations for the holiday season, but in memory of the victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake (hanshin daishinsai). This is the earthquake that shattered the Kobe-Awaji area in January 1995. It killed more than 6,400 people and destroyed most of what Kobe used to be back then. Kobe Luminarie was thought of as a way to appease the souls of the deceased and to also show that the city is and will always be reborn, no matter what tragedy might occur.
The illuminations started in 1995, in the winter right after the earthquake and the tradition continue up until today, showing the same impressive light arcades every year, but somehow always changing the shades of the colors and the shapes of the structures.
As you can imagine, the atmosphere is a bit soberer than the one you would expect in front of such a display of beauty and technology. There is classical music playing in the background, and for a while, you forget and literally get an out-of-this-world feeling.
The lights are placed in such a way that they resemble the stained glass from a cathedral (or maybe the mosaics from a mosque), while the arcades seem to usher you into some fairy tale palace or dome.
Now, this is a commemorative event, but as any event that gathers hundreds of thousands of people every year, you can imagine a huge crowd and a certain degree of commercialism in all this. There are yatai (food stalls) selling food and sweets almost everywhere after you reach the end of the arcades just like in other Japanese matsuris (festivals).
The place has also become a Mecca for couples (you literally have little chance to see people going there by themselves) and for foreigners of which the popularity and the artistic beauty of the place attract more and more every year.
Unlike Nabana no Sato, the Kobe Luminarie is only held for 10 days in the beginning of December (December 2 to 11, 2016), for a mere 2 to 3 hours a day, so you will need to plan your trip in advance in order not to miss it.
The entrance is free (after all, the event is held on the streets of Kobe), but the venue is only accessible from the JR Motomachi (元町) Station or the Hanshin Motomachi Station, and there are also a lot of traffic restrictions put in place.
For more info, you can check the map of the event here (Japanese only).
It is quite difficult to pick just one or two places with breathtaking illuminations in Tokyo since most of its main tourist spots have impressive decorations. However, there is one place in Tokyo where style is rule no. 1 and where the city is awake all night long. That is Roppongi (六本木).
I mentioned above the light tunnels in Nabana no Sato. Well, the Roppongi Hills illuminations are something similar to that, only that here, the whole street and the surrounding trees are the ones that form the tunnel. This is also a wonderful viewpoint (for couples mostly, but not only). I mean, what can be better than to take a picture with your loved one against a background of lights, with Tokyo Tower standing high in the distance.
But what you see in the picture above is only a small part of what awaits you in Tokyo Midtown, which is truly a display of art, creativity, and craft. The huge building, which you can access directly from the Roppongi Station, holds an almost infinite variety of Christmas decorations, from the main halls to the gardens, terraces, and the main entrance.
The Tokyo Midtown illuminations are a show of light, with an accuracy and perfection of the detail that I, for one, have never seen before. The lights change according to the music played in the background. And when you think it’s over, there is going to be some more holograms, more lights popping up from a place you would least expect, that you would just stand there like in a trance, without even noticing the cold. I said “the cold,” because the illuminations are held outside, in the garden of Tokyo Midtown, covering the whole lawn, giving you the feeling that you are standing above a sea of shining blue lights.
This is probably not the most breathtaking part of the Tokyo Midtown illuminations, but the tree standing in front of the entrance to the building is also a must-view. Why? Well, because this 2016, the Tokyo Midtown Christmas Welcome Tree wishes you a warm welcome in almost all the languages in the world.
Also, don’t miss the Santa Tree, which, as the name explains it, is literally a Christmas tree solely decorated with tiny Santa Clauses. You will find this one inside the Midtown building, so you can also admire it while you are sipping your coffee at one of the posh restaurants or cafes around.
The entrance to Tokyo Midtown illuminations is free of charge and you can reach the place directly from the Roppongi subway station. The event takes place between November 15 to December 25, 2016 (the light-up is at sunset, so around 5:00 PM) and the peak of visitors is expected to be around Christmas Day.
The last place on my must-see illumination spots in Japan is Kyoto Illumiere. The event started quite recently (only 5 years) compared to the Kobe Luminarie and the Tokyo Midtown illuminations, yet its scale is breathtaking, as if to define advance in the science and technology of illuminations.
This event is the greatest in the Kansai area and is probably the one with the most futuristic imagery. This 2016-2017’s theme is “The Sky Forest ~The Hope of Lamplight~” and just as the title says, you will literally feel removed from the earth, roaming in an imaginary world. It also features the first dual aurora, which basically recreates a double aurora with holograms.
What makes this event so special (aside from that it’s held in Kyoto Prefecture) is that it is made up of a delightful combination of wa (the Japanese spirit) and modern technology.
The 1 million LED lights create a world of wonder that will immerse you in a fantasy world populated by unicorns, silvery swans, and snowmen, all under the changing aurora lights.
The Kyoto Illumiere is held from October 29, 2016 to April 9, 2017, so you can admire the lights during the whole winter and early spring. It takes place in the city of Nantan (南丹), prefecture of Kyoto, near the Rurikei Onsen (るり渓温泉). There is no train that can take you there but there is a free shuttle bus service from Osaka (大阪), Hyogo (兵庫), and Kyoto (京都) almost every 30 minutes from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, even during the weekends.
The illuminations start a little before dusk at 4:30 PM and end after 9:00 PM. But if you want to catch the stunning double aurora, you have to take note that the projection times are definite (5:30, 6:20, 7:20 and 8:30 PM) and the projection itself only lasts for 8 minutes. As to reflect one of the main concepts in Japanese culture, a thing is not beautiful because it lasts for long, but because it’s ephemeral.
It is also good to remember that the entrance is not free. It costs 1,000 yen for adults and 500 yen for children. But during the weekends, peak seasons, and the New Year, the prices rise to 1,200 yen and 600 yen, respectively. Just as Nabana no Sato, it might be a bit expensive, but the experience of being spirited away in a fantasy world, away from civilization, is definitely worth it.
These are my 4 favorite illumination spots in Japan. The order is aleatory as I couldn’t decide which one I love most. It is up to you to decide which event/s to put on your list of must-sees for this winter 2016 season or the next.
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・97 Things to Do in Osaka, the Japanese City of Street Food, Culture, and Comedy, in 2018
・See 4 Million Lights Sparkle at This Illumination Event in Izu, Japan