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Christmas is almost here, and with it a time to connect with loved ones, decorate our homes and tuck into seasonal dishes (KFC included).

Japan has its own distinct take on the holiday season: Strawberry-topped Christmas cakes, romantic dates and sparkling illuminations all add up to a unique mixture of secular Christmas magic and winter wonderland.

Assuming the arrival of the omicron variant doesn’t spur the introduction of stricter public health measures, seasonal events in Tokyo and further afield are also poised to return this year, helping us get into the Christmas spirit even if family and friends are still far away.

Christmas may not quite be saved if international travel was on your calendar, but fortunately it’s possible to fully embrace the festive season in Japan. Daily infections have been low for weeks, restrictions on daily life have been lifted and there is a stocking-sized list of holiday events in full swing for Christmas 2021.

Christmas markets in particular have only recently become part of Japan’s holiday atmosphere and are full of the sights, tastes and sounds of Christmas cheer.

The Roppongi Hills Christmas Market aims to conjure up a German atmosphere. | RUSSELL THOMAS
The Roppongi Hills Christmas Market aims to conjure up a German atmosphere. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Bringing Christmas to market

The first recorded Christmas market — the Striezelmarkt — is thought to have taken place in Dresden, Germany, in 1434. The jovial custom eventually spread to other parts of Europe and North America, and has become part of seasonal celebrations.

In Japan, Christmas and Christmas markets have a bit more of a twisting tale. The first celebration of Christmas is believed to have taken place in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1552 but was eventually outlawed — along with Christanity — for more than 200 years. However, Dutch merchants in Nagasaki were permitted to continue celebrating Christmas as Oranda Shōgatsu (Dutch New Year).

The Meiji Restoration brought about much change, including a number of foreigners arriving in Japan for trade and diplomacy.

In 1873, German engineer Curt Netto (1857-1909) was sent to Kosaka, Akita Prefecture, to help with modernizing a local mine; with him came a whole host of German customs, including Christmas traditions. As such, the town claims to have hosted Japan’s first modern Christmas celebrations, a history that is marked every December with a German-style Christmas market selling baked delicacies, mulled wine and beer.

By 1928, the Asahi Shimbun declared that Christmas was now “an annual Japanese event.” Eateries in trendy urban areas such as Ginza would advertise Christmas menus, and big department stores would be decked out for the occasion.

Today, Christmas markets are held up and down the country from the beginning of the winter season. Despite being slightly dampened by the lingering effects of the pandemic, some sizable spectacles — as well as more intimate local events — are still attracting visitors this year.

Natural decorations on display at the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Natural decorations on display at the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Tokyo Christmas Market

Bringing the classic holiday experience to the center of the capital, Tokyo Christmas Market 2021 sees Hibiya Park transform into a winter wonderland. Taking place from Dec. 10 through Christmas Day, the event has been held every year since 2015 and takes inspiration from the Striezelmarkt held annually in Dresden.

Entrance to the market is ticketed, but once inside guests are treated to dazzling illuminations, including a 14-meter-high Christmas pyramid at the center of the action. This traditional German decoration, called Weihnachtspyramide, has been shipped all the way from Seiffen, Germany, and is purportedly the biggest in the world.

Thanks to the support of the German Tourism and German Embassy, you can expect some hefty helpings of authentic German cuisine. Here you can sample everything from tummy-warming glasses of gluhwein (hot wine) to hearty sausages from one of the 16 different food stalls. Dotted around the area is an array of vendors selling craft goods and gifts. There will even be performance by a choir and other live music to add to the atmosphere.

Sadly, COVID-19 still needs to be considered, even during Christmas, and the organizers have put a list of guidelines in place for visitors, including temperature checks at the entrance of the venue, hand disinfection and social distancing. But the organizers add: “We hope that this event will give as many customers as possible a taste of German culture and the charm of the Christmas market.”

Dec. 10-25, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (LO 9:30 p.m.); Hibiya Park, Hibiya; admission ¥1,000 (with mug)

Ornaments on display at the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market | RUSSELL THOMAS
Ornaments on display at the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market | RUSSELL THOMAS

Roppongi Hills Christmas Market

Returning for its 15th year, the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market — taking place under the roofed O-Yane Plaza — also aims to conjure up a German atmosphere. The organizers have taken inspiration from the Stuttgart Christmas Market, one of the oldest in the world.

The free event is a fantastical affair replete with illuminations, food and entertainment, and is sure to put even Ebenezer Scrooge himself in the Christmas spirit.

The food stalls alone offer enough to keep visitors happy. Frankfurter House Meister serves up a traditional Frankfurt Christmas menu prepared by German chef Marcus Boss including Hokkaido black beef goulash (¥1,100) and plentiful glasses of Frank Fuller apple gluhwein (¥600). Over at the Schmatz stall, meanwhile, modern German fare can be enjoyed alongside German craft beer.

The selection of Christmas gifts and traditional decorations on sale is impressive. Much-loved purveyor of Christmas decorations Kathe Wohlfahrt will be on site selling a collection of classic trinkets, while Rasp Spice Decoration provides a place to buy traditional clove-infused ornaments imbued with that nostalgic Christmas scent. Other stalls can help with the Christmas prep, thanks to a range of dinner table goods, baubles and other gifts.

Again, COVID-19 precautions have been taken into consideration, with a restriction on admission numbers at busy times, alongside a list of other measures.

Through Dec. 25, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Roppongi Hills, Roppongi; admission free

Colorful matroyshka dolls on display at the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market | RUSSELL THOMAS
Colorful matroyshka dolls on display at the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market | RUSSELL THOMAS

Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market

Tired of Tokyo? Hop on the train and head to the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market. Now in its 12th year, the annual event makes the most of its historic setting by creating a classic Yuletide atmosphere between the illuminated old buildings.

The market provides the perfect opportunity for a spot of last-minute holiday shopping with its dozen-or-so stalls. Colorful matryoshka dolls, handmade ornaments and Polish pottery are just some of the gifts on sale, as well as souvenir mugs (¥650). Workshops are also held for market-goers who want to try their hand at creating their own snow globes (from ¥2,500). The surrounding warehouses will also be open to inspire a wide array of gift-giving ideas.

Eating and drinking is particularly popular at this market, and there is ample space to do so. Benches are busy with friends tucking into classic German dishes such as schnitzel and rich stollen cakes. Beer and spicy gluhwein add to the jovial atmosphere.

Once you’ve had your fill of frankfurters, make sure you head to the main plaza that overlooks the sea. Here the main event is an enormous glittering Christmas tree that’s been festively decked out. It’s the perfect spot for photo opportunities.

On certain days, the outdoor lounge in Warehouse No. 2 will have live music and DJ sets. There’s even the opportunity to skate up a storm (or fall over trying) at the market’s ice rink.

Through Dec. 25, opening times vary; Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, Minato Mirai; admission free (apart from Dec. 11, 12, 18 and 19, and between Dec. 23 and 25; ¥300 advance ticket booked online)

 

Christmas markets have only recently become part of Japan's holiday atmosphere and are full of the sights, tastes and sounds of Christmas cheer. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Christmas markets have only recently become part of Japan’s holiday atmosphere and are full of the sights, tastes and sounds of Christmas cheer. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Further afield

Christmas markets aren’t just held in the capital. Although some events have been canceled again this year due to COVID-19, there are still a number of markets in operation across Japan.

Kyushu does Christmas well. Kumamoto’s very own Christmas market takes place at two venues in the city — in front of Kumamoto Station (Dec. 9-25) and at Hanabata Square (Dec. 6-19). First opening for business in 2018, the yearly markets are comprised of stalls selling warming German food, hot wine, hot chocolate and gifts.

Also boasting a prime location in front of a train station is the Kagoshima Christmas Market (Dec. 3-26). This compact event centers around a sizable Christmas tree, and includes food and craft stalls.

Fukuoka also boasts two markets to help get into the Christmas spirit. First up there’s the Hakata Christmas Market (Nov. 9-Dec. 25), which serves up a hunger-inducing array of German and local specialities, alongside stalls selling items such as Polish tableware and Christmas wreaths. Elsewhere, the Tenjin Christmas Market (Nov. 13-Dec. 26) hosts a wide selection of food stalls beneath the glow of stringed lights and a towering tree.

In nearby Nagasaki, the Huis Ten Bosch theme park plays on its Dutch roots by transforming into a glowing Christmassy enclave between Nov. 11 and Dec. 26. Expect illuminations aplenty, as well as parades and tasty seasonal treats.

And for a real white Christmas, head to Akita for the Kosaka Christmas Market (Dec. 1-25). More like a village than a festival, this intimate event is one of the more authentic Yuletide offerings in Japan, and charmingly pays homage to the area’s historic German connections.

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