Nostalgia Illumination allows visitors to the Southeast Botanical Gardens to stay in the park until 10 p.m. to view the lighted displays.

Nostalgia Illumination allows visitors to the Southeast Botanical Gardens to stay in the park until 10 p.m. to view the lighted displays. (Aya Ichihashi/Stars and Stripes)

It might seem like a challenge to get into the holiday spirit on Okinawa, as the island’s subtropical climate makes the winter feel less like a time for Santa Claus and gingerbread and more like a time for hitting the beach in a pair of shorts and a tank top.

However, thanks to the many winter illumination events currently taking place across the prefecture, those yearning to make some magical memories with their family can easily find the inspiration they’re looking for just in time for the holidays.

Illuminations are Japan’s version of the extravagant holiday light displays often seen throughout the United States during the winter months. They can range from elegant and upscale to whimsical and kid-friendly. The tradition first began in the city of Sapporo in 1981 and has now spread across the country, with many larger cities playing host to countless illumination events. These days, it’s not uncommon to see both families and young couples enjoying the lights and holiday atmosphere — making illumination viewing an ideal activity for people of all ages.

While many of these events end after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, there are some that run through late January and early February. On Okinawa, the Itoman Peaceful Illumination is one of the first illuminations to close, taking place from Dec. 15 to Jan. 3 — so it makes an ideal place for illumination first-timers to kick off the holiday season.

Itoman is the southernmost city of Okinawa, known as one of the locations with the most civilian casualties during World War II. Inspired by the city’s history, the Itoman tourist bureau and local volunteers started the annual illumination event 20 years ago to promote world peace.

The illumination, at Uchina Farm, hosts numerous vendors selling a variety of traditional Japanese festival food, so don’t forget to bring some yen (and an appetite).

Itoman is particularly famous for its fishing industry, which the event honors with a giant display of an illuminated ocean decorated with traditional sabani fishing boats. Itoman Peaceful Illumination’s centerpiece display is its large Christmas tree draped in layers of lights. Admission is 500 yen for adults (or about $4.41), while children of middle school age and younger can enter for free.

Stardust Fantasia, located at the Kanucha Resort about 10 minutes from Camp Schwab, also celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The event, which runs through Feb. 14, is the largest on Okinawa. Stardust Fantasia is spread out across the resort grounds, so a free shuttle is offered to help transport visitors between displays. Admission is 1,500 yen for ages 12 and older, with an additional 1,000-yen fee charged from Dec. 22-25.

On some evenings, visitors to Stardust Fantasia can expect live holiday-themed music performed with an Okinawan twist by a local band. Stardust Fantasia staff will be handing out heart-shaped Christmas ornaments, complete with space to write a wish, to hang on the resort’s 30-foot-tall “Mother Tree.”

For a smaller, more relaxed and elegant display, the Dream Fantasy Illumination — located at Okinawa Kariyushi Beach Resort Ocean Spa about 30 minutes from Kadena Air Base — is famous for its beautiful coastal scenery. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic evening, and best of all, it’s free.

Closer to Kadena, the Southeast Botanical Gardens hosts the popular Nostalgia Illumination, which runs through March 31. During the illumination event, the garden — which is a popular spot for families and couples to gather on weekends — extends its opening hours until 10 p.m. to allow patrons to enjoy the lighted displays. Admission is 1,800 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for high schoolers and 500 yen for children ages 6 and older. From Dec. 22-25, admission requires an additional 2,000-yen fee.

Like Stardust Fantasia, Nostalgia Illumination also allows visitors to write their wishes for the new year on ornaments that are hung on a large Christmas tree in the park. An illuminated playground offers the perfect space for little ones to let loose, while couples can enjoy the romance-themed “Love Area,” complete with lighted heart-shaped padlocks.

Southeast Botanical Gardens’ restaurant, Restaurant Peace, offers buffet dining featuring more than 50 dishes made from locally grown vegetables and park-harvested herbs. The park is promoting a special four-course dinner for two on weekends during the illumination, which costs 9,000 yen and includes park admission.

Okinawa’s numerous illuminations prove that even if you are surrounded by beaches and the weather is warm, there is still a holiday season to celebrate with those you love. Who wouldn’t want to sip hot cocoa under the glow of a thousand lights overlooking Okinawa’s tropical landscape?

Itoman Peaceful IlluminationLOCATION: Itoman Tourism Uchina Farm, 1018 Mabuni, Itoman CityHOURS: Open daily from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.ADMISSION: Adult admission is 500 yen (or about $4.75), with children ages 12 and under free.INFORMATION: Itoman Peaceful Illumination runs from Dec. 15 to Jan. 3.

Stardust FantasiaLOCATION: Kanucha Resort Okinawa, 156-2 Abu, Nago, Okinawa Prefecture 905-2263HOURS: Through Dec. 31, open daily from 6 to 11 p.m.; last entry at 8:30 p.m. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 14, open daily from 7 to 11 p.m., with last entry at 8:30 p.m.COST: Admission is 1,500 yen for adults, with an additional 1,000 yen fee required Dec. 22-25. Admission for children ages 12 and under, as well as hotel and dinner guests at the resort, is free.INFORMATION: Stardust Fantasia runs until Feb 14. Online:

Kariyushi Dream FantasyLOCATION: Okinawa Kariyushi Beach Resort Ocean Spa, 2591-1 Nakama, Onna, Kunigami District, Okinawa Prefecture 904-0401HOURS: Open daily, from sunset until midnight. Live music begins at 7 and 8 nightly. Aqua Illusion Show at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.ADMISSION: FreeINFORMATION: Kariyushi Dream Fantasy runs through Feb. 28. Online:

Nostalgia IlluminationLOCATION: Southeast Botanical Gardens, 2146 Chibana, Okinawa, Okinawa Prefecture 904-2143HOURS: Open daily from 5 to 10 p.m.ADMISSION: Adult admission is 1,800 yen. Admission for high school-aged children is 1,000 yen; middle school- and elementary school-aged children cost 500 yen. From Dec. 22-25, admission requires an additional 2,000-yen fee.INFORMATION: Nostalgia Illumination runs through March 31. Online:

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