When you think of Japanese art forms, many cultural pursuits will come to mind. The grace of ikebana, perhaps, or the beauty of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. At this time of year it becomes clear, though, that holiday lighting displays — referred to simply as “illumination” — are where the country’s masterpieces are being created.

The displays rarely include typical Christmas icons like a bellowing Santa Claus, dancing snowmen or more solemn scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. Illumination displays are still just as fantastical, often serving as a showcase for technological advancements in the field of LED (light-emitting diode) lighting.

“(A massive display of) lights makes people excited, like fireworks in the summer,” says Shigeo Kobayashi, an architecture professor at Tokyo City University. “People often feel depressed during the long winter nights, and illuminations lighten their spirits. The (physical) coldness is also eased by lights.”

While some towns overseas have one home that goes overboard on the Christmas lights, that role in Japan is reserved for commercial centers. Corporate sponsors include real-estate and property-management firms, local governments, specific brands and amusement parks. The goal is the same, though: bring people in to gaze in awe at the lights . . . and then spend a bit of money. As a result, the competition to create a top attraction is heating up, especially in Tokyo.

Keyakizaka Roppongi Hills Artelligent Christmas

Satoshi Uchihara of Uchihara Creative Lighting Design has been illuminating the more than 60 15-meter-high trees that line Keyakizaka Dori, the avenue that runs parallel to Roppongi Hills, for 12 years. Commissioned by the management of the Mori Building, this year’s display is titled “Artelligent Christmas 2014” and uses approximately 1.1 million LED lights, or, as Uchihara says, “too many to count.”

For the first 10 years, the display remained unchanged with the trees decorated with blue and white LED lights.

“Though the illumination appears quite bluish, we use more white LEDs than blue — 5,000 whites to 300 blues per tree,” Uchihara says. And while many places look to change their illumination every year, he firmly believed in maintaining tradition.

“We didn’t change the colors because when I saw illuminations in Europe I was moved by the idea of an unchanging holiday tradition,” he says.

Last year, however, for the 11th edition of the display, Uchihara broke with tradition and added red LED lights, creating two alternating color schemes.

“The red color I saw in London was so heartwarming,” he says.

Using red lights on the street required navigating a string of government regulations before getting approval, because the red LED lights could potentially get confused with red traffic lights.

When hung, Christmas lights are often organized in a linear fashion (such as with the so-called icicle lights that are seen on many homes in the West). Uchihara wanted to remove that sense of linearity and create a scene reminiscent of stars in the night sky, so he custom-ordered his own LED strings.

Uchihara credits the beauty of his illumination to the expert craftsmanship of the 20-30 lighting installers. They begin setting up in September, only using cranes and trucks on the road during the least busy times of day (usually early in the morning). The placement of each LED light is specific, and they are finally lit in the first week of November.

“(The light installers) do their job in a manner that cannot be found elsewhere,” he says. “We owe the highest quality of Keyakizaka illumination to our workers.”

Tokyo Midtown Starlight Garden

Now in its eighth year and sponsored by Hennessey cognac, the illumination display “Starlight Garden” is held on a flat 2,000-sq.-meter lawn at the Tokyo Midtown building in Roppongi. Ayumi Takamichi, PR associate with Tokyo Midtown Management, says the show attracted 5.6 million visitors last year with waiting times of nearly two hours to view it.

Based on the theme of space travel and using 180,000 LED lights, the 3½-minute show has four scenes and a grand finale. This year, in addition to the dynamic blue and white lights that appear to move across a horizontal plane, vertical elements reaching 4 meters in height were added to mimic the sensation of a gravity-free environment. There are specially lit white, red and green trees along the footpath that leads to the show, and viewed from different heights and distances, the display will look completely different.

Catch it soon, though, the show will end on Christmas Day in order to make way for a public ice-skating rink.

Caretta Shiodome’s Canyon d’Azur

Located in the central forum at the Caretta Shiodome shopping center, the 250,000 LED light show Canyon d’Azur is a full six-minute production of four scenes that represent the changing of the seasons and includes what director Taizo Shioda calls a final “curtain call.”

“Drops of light come down from heaven and the spirits of light find a place to play on Earth. This is the scene of thawing snow,” Shioda explains. “Then the spring comes and the flowers in the fields bloom. In the summer, the lights and flowering plants play. In autumn, the lights go back to where they came from and the leaves change color. Then the glittering snow starts to fall.”

Between the shows, which run every 20 minutes, visitors can walk through the lighting installation, which includes an illuminated tunnel.

The designer of the show is Satoru Okegawa of Axis Space Design, who won a competition to get the position. Approximately 30 people were involved in the illumination’s production, not including those involved with its physical installation, and altogether it comprises four separate pieces with a soundtrack composed by Takuya Murakami.

Izumi Garden Roppongi

Though the lighting of Izumi Garden began last year, this year the illuminations have expanded the operation to include a proper show. Organizers aim to expand it further next year to use a total of 115,000 LED lights.

“The show is for local residents as well as for people working in this area to enjoy,” says Chihiro Tanaka, a manager at Sumitomo Realty & Development. “The area around Roppongi 1-chome has been developing, with an increasing number of new residents and visitors.”

Sumitomo hopes to revamp the area as it is redeveloping the property on the opposite side of Roppongi-itchome Station, to be completed in 2016.

“Residents of roku-ichi (Roppongi 1-chome) used to leave the area for other places on weekends. It would be great if the area is appealing enough to keep people here, even on weekends.”

Tanaka’s plan to get residents to do that is being stepped up during the holiday season. Expect a food wagon, concerts and a Christmas market.

Kazunori Matsushima, who worked on the Caretta display as well, was hired to design the illumination and produce the show. The topography of Izumi is both flat and terraced, creating contrasting vantage points.

“When you look up from the escalator right out of the station, we thought it would be great to have lights showering down on you like waterfalls with the structure appearing like a mountain towering high overhead,” Tanaka says.

At the top of the property is Kokoro Terrace Illumination, a three-minute show that takes place every 15 minutes and is timed to start precisely after the national 5 p.m. chime.

“The garden is a flat place and we adopted this idea of showing it as a carpet of lights in a wavy pattern,” Tanaka says, adding that the lights are coordinated with lively orchestral music.

While most illuminations are up well before December, they are usually taken down fairly quickly — either on Christmas Day or shortly thereafter. After a quick post-mortem on the displays, organizers typically begin preparations for the following year’s show in spring, making the entire undertaking a year-round endeavor. That’s better given the complications that can arise during the planning stage, which includes the hiring and coordinating of numerous subcontracting teams, the re-purposing of existing equipment for a new concept, the actualization of a client-approved rendering for an installation, budgeting and zoning approvals.

Through continued advances in LED lighting and increased competition to attract visitors, illumination designers will be tasked to produce more and more elaborate and creative designs.

When asked about next year’s plans, Keyakizaka designer Uchihara simply states, “I am not ready to think about it.”

The most popular illumination spots nationwide

Festival of Light: Numerous locations in Osaka take part in this festival that highlights wintry and fairy-tale themes. There are two core programs, which include more than 20 illumination displays and shows. The illuminations end Jan. 18. www.hikari-kyoen.com/en/index.html

Kobe Luminairie: This event started in 1995 to lift the spirit of Hyogo Prefecture residents after the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake that year. This year’s theme is “Dreams and Light.” It runs through Feb. 1. www.kobe-luminarie.jp

Flower Fantasy: Located in Tochigi Prefecture’s Ashikaga Flower Park, this display uses 2.5 million LED lights and, in a world first, electroluminescent panels — which allowed it to grab top place overall in the National Illumination Rankings. It runs through Feb. 5. www.ashikaga.co.jp

Sagamiko Illumillion: The Lake Sagami Pleasure Forest in Kanagawa Prefecture boasts 5 million LED lights and runs through April 12. www.sagamiko-resort.jp

The Kingdom of Light: This display at Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture is the world’s largest illumination production, using 11 million LED lights. It won top prize in its category in the National Illumination Rankings two years in a row. It is comprised of five scenes that include 3-D projection mapping and Japan’s first illuminated canal. It runs through April 13. www.huistenbosch.co.jp

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