Autumn in Japan. The days grow shorter, the air grows cooler and two of my favorite events occur: The changing of the leaves and Halloween celebrations —the best American cultural export ever, as far as I’m concerned.
Sure, the Japanese have incorporated a number of holidays from the West, all while creating their own traditions. For many people in Japan, Valentine’s Day is actually two separate events and segregated by gender, while Christmas has become synonymous with cake, fried chicken and a table for two at a swank restaurant. Halloween, I believe, proves to be a better fit for Japan’s cultural predilections just as it is. It has its roots in respecting — and even communing with — the dead, which lines up well with ancient O-bon traditions, and Japan has more than its share of homegrown ghost and monster stories to be told around a campfire. Halloween’s present themes of costumes and fright also jibe with the Japan of today, where horror movies and cosplay still rake in billions of yen every year.
You’d think that Halloween events would blanket the archipelago by now, and some would argue that they have, but a large majority of these are aimed at an audience much older than the trick-or-treat age. Clubs and bars will have their parties (and well they should), but families need not despair, as there are a number of places in and around Tokyo to get into the Halloween spirit.
The most obvious venues are Disney’s sister parks in nearby Chiba. I’ll spare you any recommendations, as you already know whether this interests you. I’m not a big fan of Mickey’s franchise, but I have been a handful of times, and enjoyed myself best during the Halloween season. The weather is more accommodating for the long lines, and there’s something appealing about seeing Disney’s cute-and-clean style go slightly macabre (ghosts, skeletons, etc).
The capital’s landmarks — new and old — have also caught on to the holiday. Tokyo Sky Tree will have dance performances and dress-up days on the two weekends leading up to Halloween, as well as on Oct. 31 (a costume changing room will be provided). Not to be shown up, Tokyo Tower is having a similar event of its own, where families can rent costumes and have their picture taken while inside the tower itself.
Head west into the ritzier parts of town and you’ll find more Halloween fun. The Roppongi Hills complex, for example, will have its Halloween festival at the Roppongi Arena stage near the entrance to the TV Asahi headquarters. Taking a cinematic theme this year, participants are encouraged to dress up as movie characters for the parade from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 25.
The following day, the Harajuku Halloween parade begins around 11 a.m. and lasts until 5 p.m. Many of the shops along Omotesando and in Omotesando Hills hand out candy, and costumes are encouraged. Event organizers want families to purchase tickets, and understandably so, but there is still fun to be had walking around, whether you’re an official participant or not.
All of these events are fun and very child-friendly. They are also an adorably sanitized and overly commercialized simulacrum of Halloween. Most of the costumes you will see will be superheroes, Disney characters and people who have simply thrown on a cape or witch’s hat. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s a lot of fun, especially with younger ones, to march down the street with this fun group of kids and parents. But if you want to see spectacular outfits, you may leave disappointed.
There is, however, a place where people take their costumes seriously — Kawasaki. On the afternoon of Oct. 26, Kawasaki Station will be swamped with ghouls, aliens and all other manner of the phantasmagorical. Regular participants of the Kawasaki Halloween Parade really make a spectacle of it, donning creative and elaborate handmade costumes.
As the hordes of faces pass through the street, you will see the cute and the horrifying — often simultaneously. This is my favorite Halloween event in Japan. I have only been a spectator, but I’ll admit that it may not be for everyone. The prudish may blush at a few risque outfits, but it’s the occasional gruesome costume that really merits consideration here. If your children are young or overly sensitive, be careful, because walking among those dressed as pumpkins, kittens and the Mario Brothers are some truly horrifying costumes involving blood and gore. I’ve taken my kids, and they enjoyed it, but you’ve been warned. If it does sound a bit much, though, there’s also a parade for kids under age 6 the day before.
As for other events, the Tokyo International Parents group will have a party Oct.12 at Shiokaze Park in Odaiba, while several Tokyo neighborhoods have begun a tenuous tradition of trick-or-treating. In years past, Halloween decorations and bowls of candy have been waiting for costumed kids in places such as Yoyogi-Uehara, Hiroo, Shimokitazawa, Azabu’s Seta neighborhood and the Shoto/Kamiyama area of Shibuya. You could try these places, or perhaps ask around in your own neighborhood. With Halloween poised to go mainstream in Japan, the trick-or-treating might be closer to your doorstep than you realize.
Where to look for something spooky
Tokyo International Parents and Pals: bit.ly/TIPPhwn
Disney Sea and Disney Land Halloween: bit.ly/TDShwn
Kawasaki Halloween Parade: bit.ly/1yaGaop
Roppongi Hills Halloween Parade: bit.ly/RPHShwn
Tokyo Sky Tree Halloween Magic: bit.ly/TSTMhwn
Tokyo Tower’s Halloween Celebration: bit.ly/TTWhwn
Harajuku Halloween in Omotesando/Harajuku: bit.ly/HRJKhwn