Japan’s winter illuminations promise holiday excitement for all ages

In the aptly named "Green District" at Sapporo's White Illumination you might run into the Grinch himself.



There’s electricity in the air during the Christmas season in Japan.

Santa’s little helpers have been at work stringing lightbulbs around the city of Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido — and many more will light up other Japanese cities in the leadup to the end-of-the-year holidays.

Although winter illuminations are now commonplace all across Japan, the Sapporo White Illumination was the country’s first Christmas illumination when it began in 1981. That first illumination, according to Sapporo mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto, was created using about 1,000 bulbs — a far cry from the 520,000 lights in this year’s White Illumination.

Akimoto was part of a group of a dozen or so local leaders who helped kick off this year’s festivities by turning on the illumination’s lights at Sapporo’s Odori Park on Nov. 22.

Japanese officials are promoting the use of sustainable energy to power LED Christmas lights this year — but it’s clear that this nuclear-powered nation isn’t short of electricity, or shy about showing it off.

Sapporo’s White Illumination includes five distinct color-themed areas, referred to as “Districts.” For example, there’s a love-themed display near the Sapporo TV tower called the “Red District.” In the aptly named “Green District,” you might run into the Grinch himself.

Visitors can also stop by the Munich Christmas Market, which includes 34 stalls operated by vendors from Germany, Russia, Austria and Lithuania.

It’s a little weird to see people selling T-shirts with images of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Hokkaido, given Japan and Russia’s territorial dispute over tiny islands known as the Northern Territories, located off the island’s northern coast. But having a German-style Christmas market in Sapporo makes sense, as Munich and Sapporo have been sister cities since the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics.

While it might be prudent to put on a light sweater before strolling among the illuminations in Tokyo, in Sapporo it’s best to bundle up as warmly as possible. Local schoolgirls are tough enough to wander through the snow in short skirts — but if you’re from out of town, several thermal layers and down jacket will help you focus on the lights rather than the cold.

If you can’t make it up to Sapporo for the festivities, there’s plenty of illumination action happening elsewhere in the country through the beginning of the new year.

Tokyo Prefecture is one of the most popular locations in Japan to visit for illuminations, with more than 20 major illuminations planned for the winter season.

One of the most popular illuminations in Tokyo is the Tokyo Midtown Illumination, which is famous for its annual Starlight Garden installation featuring a whopping 190,000 LED bulbs, bubbles and an intergalactic-themed light show. The illumination, which runs through Dec. 25, is particularly crowded on Christmas Eve, when many young couples descend upon the Midtown neighborhood to spend a romantic evening together.

Tokyo Dome City’s annual illumination is well known for its extravagant decorations built around a theme, which changes yearly. This winter’s display, titled “Edo Elegance Japanese Beauty,” is inspired by traditional Japanese handicrafts and features everything from origami cranes to traditional umbrellas handmade in Gifu Prefecture. The display runs through Feb. 17, several weeks after most other illuminations finish.

Other popular illuminations include:

• The Otmotesando Illumination (through Dec. 25), in which the trees lining the streets of the upscale shopping district are covered in golden lights.

• Shibuya Ao no Dokutsu (through Dec. 31), or the “Blue Cavern,” which transforms a road leading into Yoyogi Park into a magical forest of blue trees.

• The Yomiuri Land Jewellumination (through Feb. 17), which even illuminates the theme park’s attractions in a spectacle that rivals that of Tokyo Disneyland’s Christmas display.

In addition to the large-scale displays, many smaller Tokyo neighborhoods also host low-key illuminations, with most of the action centered around train stations or shopping areas. If you want to avoid the crowds or have little ones in tow, these illuminations are a great substitute for the more hectic larger events.

Can’t make it to Tokyo? Don’t worry — there’s plenty of other illuminations to choose from, including some near American military bases.

Those stationed at United States Fleet Activities Yokosuka should head to nearby Yokohama to check out Cosmoworld’s Winter Fantasy Illumination, which begins Dec. 1 and runs through the end of February.

A few minutes from Naval Air Facility Atsugi at Atsugi Station is the Atsugi Brilliant Story illumination, a low-key display that’s perfect for families. This year’s event is titled “Fireworks in Winter” and runs through Feb. 14.

There’s even illumination action in the remote northern prefecture of Aomori, with the Misawa Phantasia illumination taking over the city’s Nakayoshi Park through Jan. 14. The event, which is located less than 10 minutes from Misawa Air Base, boasts a pop-up bar serving beer and other snacks on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 15.

Even if you’re far from family this year, illuminations make it easy to get into the holiday spirit. But don’t wait — these dazzling displays won’t be around for long.

Twitter: @sethrobson1



INFORMATION: Japan’s winter illuminations run from late November through early February, with most ending after Christmas. Chek out Stars and Stripes' extensive list of illuminations, which includes hours of operation.

Visitors to Sapporo's White Illumination can buy Russian nesting dolls at a Munich-inspired Chistmas Market in Odori Park.

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