From late autumn through winter, elaborate and colorful light displays – from Sapporo, Hokkaido to Tokyo to Itoman, Okinawa – ring in the holiday spirit with dazzling brilliance throughout Japan.
These displays, or “illuminations,” are some of Japans most popular winter attractions, drawing as many as 50,000 annual visitors to smaller locales such as the Itoman Peaceful Illumination in Okinawa, and millions in bigger cities like Tokyo’s Midtown Christmas Illumination (5 million).
In addition to promoting the holiday spirit, there are more practical reasons for winter illuminations in Japan, according to Takashi Otomo of the Japan Illumination Association.
“Daytime is getting shorter, the air becomes dry and clear, the temperature difference between day and night decreases and fine weather is continuous – all these wintertime factors in Japan make optimal illuminations that look beautiful,” he said. “Actually, winter is the best season for illuminations in Japan.”
The tradition of winter illuminations in Japan is generally considered to have started in Osaka when Tsutenkaku Tower was lit up for the National Industrial Exposition in 1903. The following year, Meiji-Ya, a high-end import grocer, displayed a lighted Christmas tree outside in Tokyo’s Ginza Ward to commemorate Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. However, Otomo said the practice likely started earlier.
“In the 1890s, some foreign ships berthed at Kobe Port would be decorated with lights to celebrate various occasions,” he said. “Kobe locals who saw these illuminations adopted them for their own celebrations; that would be the very start of this tradition (in Japan).”
Those concerned about the environment, as well as traditionalists, can thank the modern-day technology of LED lighting for making this longstanding tradition more efficient and less expensive to uphold.
“There are a lot of merits to using LEDs,” Otomo said.
One LED consumes only 0.06 watts, less than 10 percent of what a conventional electric bulb uses. It also produces a lot less heat, reducing the risk of fire to trees and wooden structures. As an added bonus, recently developed blue and white LEDs allow for more diverse and creative displays.
“The recent trend in public illuminations is to create elaborate illusions by combing different LED lights with high-tech 3-D projection mapping,” Otomo said.
This and similar advances create astonishing effects, such as Tokyo Station appearing to transfigure before your eyes at Tokyo Michiterace Starlight Walk (Dec. 24-29), or Osaka Castle seemingly split in two at Osaka’s Art Festival of Light (Dec. 14 -Feb. 16). While displays like Tokyo’s Caretta Shiodome Illumination (Dec. 21-25) and Christmas Fantasy 2013 at Okinawa Children’s Kingdom (Dec. 22-28), incorporate laser light shows with 3-D and fireworks with bubbles, respectively.
As if taking a tip from their American counterparts, Japanese are also starting to decorate their homes with winter illuminations – although on a grander scale, according to Otomo.
“These days, we are seeing individuals purchase some expensive illumination devices that had only been used for public space in the past,” Otomo said. “As people become more aware of the beauty of holiday illuminations, and home illuminations catch on, I expect to see them continue to increase and become more sophisticated every year.”
Luckily, for those not yet ready to invest in millions of LEDs and laser lights for their front yard, most of the public illuminations are free and easy to access by public transportation. However, while a few may run until mid-February, most end after Christmas or New Year’s.
So why not visit the illumination nearest you tonight? It is a great way to enjoy the brilliance of the holiday season while in Japan.
ITOMAN PEACEFUL ILLUMINATION: Dec. 14-Jan. 3, 6-10 p.m., until 12:30 a.m. Dec. 31/Jan. 1; 350,000 LED lights at Itoman Kanko Noen, as well as concerts and live performances 7-9 p.m. Dec. 25, fireworks 9 p.m. Dec. 25, and fireworks and a countdown Dec. 31; 250 yen adults, kids free; Heiwa-no Hikari Committee; 098-840-8135.
CHRISTMAS FANTASY 2013: Dec. 22-28, 4-9:30 p.m.; events include laser beams and fireworks along with concerts, dance performances and attractions at Okinawa Children’s Kingdom, 15-minute drive from Okinawa Minami I.C., 50-minute drive from Naha Airport; 2,000 yen adults/1,700 yen in advance, 1,200 yen kids/1,000 yen in advance; 098-933-4190; xmas-fantasy.com/top_e.htm.
2013 MARRIOTT CHRISTMAS: Through Dec. 25, 5 p.m.-midnight; 80,000 LED lights at Okinawa Marriott Resort & Spa, 70-minute drive from Naha Airport; free; 098-51-1900; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/okamc-okinawa-marriott-resort-and-spa.
WINTER ELEGANCE 2013: Through Feb. 14, 5-8:30 p.m.; at Okinawa Outlet Mall Ashibinaa, 15-minute walk from Naha Airport; free; 098-891-6000; www.ashibinaa.com.
GARDEN ILLUMINATION BLUE OCEAN FANTASY: Through Feb. 28, sunset-midnight; 80,000 LED lights on ocean near Renaissance Resort Okinawa, five-minute drive from Ishikawa I.C. on Okinawa Express or a 70-minute drive from Naha Airport; free; 098-965-0707.
KANUCHA RESORT STARDUST FANTASY: Through Feb. 28, 6-11 p.m., 7-11 p.m. Jan. 1-Feb. 28; 1 million LED lights in the theme of Love & Miracles, limited to visitors for a stay or a dinner; 9-minute ride from Naha Airport; 098-869-5566; www.kanucha.jp.
KARIYUSHI OCEANSPA MILLION FANTASY: Through June 30, 6 p.m.-midnight; 1.4 million LED lights illuminating 11 areas of Kariyushi Oceanspa, 90-minute ride from Naha Airport; 098-967-8731; www.kariyushi.co.jp/beach/english.
ORCHID CHRISTMAS TREE: While there are several illumination events to see on Okinawa, a unique Christmas tree made from orchids is also on display at Bios Hill the botanical gardens in Uruma City. This 16-foot-tall Christmas tree consists of about 10,000 orchids. The orchid Christmas is on display until Dec. 25. Bios Hill is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is 580 yen ($6). For more information, call 098-965-3400 or visit: www.bios-hill.co.jp