Every winter places set themselves aglow with illuminations as part of the festive mood for Christmas and New Year’s.
Major shopping malls and amusement parks in particular go out of their way to put up dazzling arrays, and in recent years people have likewise taken to decorating their homes and gardens.
Illuminations may be widespread now, but the nation does not have a long history of the activity. And while the practice continues to spread, this year is seeing restraints placed on power consumption amid the nuclear crisis and reactor shutdowns at most of the nation’s atomic plants.
Following are questions and answers about seasonal illuminations:
When did Japan start putting up Christmas lights?
Japan’s first large outdoor light display was strung up in 1903, when 6,700 bulbs adorned buildings as part of an industrial technology exhibition that ran from March 1 to July 31 in Osaka, according to the Japan Electric Lamp Manufacturers Association.
It was a time when the primarily Buddhist and Shinto nation was opening itself up to Western culture, including Christian countries in Europe, where trees have sported candles at Christmas time since at least the 16th century.
The National Diet Library’s website notes that industrial technology exhibitions were sporadically held from 1877 to 1903.
When did decorative lights become popular in Japan?
The 1990s saw a surge in holiday-related light displays as the invention of blue light-emitting diodes became commercialized.
Earlier illuminations used regular light bulbs, which gulped power and had short life spans.
The onset of LED lights ended those problems.
According to the Japan LED Association, an LED light consumes one-seventh the power that a conventional incandescent bulb does. And whereas conventional bulbs can be illuminated for some 1,000 hours, LED lights can run for 10,000 to 40,000 hours.
Where are some popular illumination sites?
The approach to Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine through the trendy Omotesando district has dazzled pedestrians almost every winter since 1991 with its brilliant illuminations.
Since Dec. 2, the zelkova trees along a 1-km stretch of Omotesando Dori have boasted 650,000 LEDs, which come on at sunset and go off at 9 p.m. daily. The display will run until Jan. 3.
The Omotesando light show, however, did not always go off without a hitch. It was halted in 1998 because of traffic jams caused by the many people swarming to view the lights. The hot light bulbs used at the time also were harming the trees.
Local store owners who organized the display tried to resume the show, holding events in 2001 and 2006 before they returned as an annual show in 2009.
“We started the illuminations again two years ago with LED lights, which do not hurt the trees with too much heat,” said Yujiro Oni, a member of the organizing staff.
Other Tokyo commercial complexes also are set aglow with the help of thousands of LEDs.
There is also the Kobe Luminarie, a light show that has run for a few weeks every December since 1995, to commemorate the Great Hanshin Earthquake that occurred on Jan. 17 of that year. The event has become a symbol of the city’s recovery.
The Luminarie, an Italian artwork based on hundreds of thousands of intricately designed colored lights, ran from Dec. 1 to 12 this year and drew in 3.42 million people to see its 200,000 lights draped on arches over major streets.
Sapporo, Osaka, Nara and Nagasaki also are known for their winter illuminations.
Do decorative lights hurt trees?
Lighting can affect various plants in different ways.
According to electronics maker Panasonic Corp.’s website, zelkova, ginkgo and pasania trees will not suffer damage from seasonal decorative lighting if the lights are not too strong and are used for no longer than four months.
Bright lights can retard the growth of rice, however, it says.
The heat from conventional light bulbs can harm plants, but LED lights radiate little heat.
Have light displays been toned down this year because of the March 11 tragedy and the power shortages that followed, including the nuclear crisis and reactor shutdowns nationwide?
Yes. Illumination planners have taken extra steps to save electricity. Some also urge visitors to the light displays to make donations to support survivors of the disasters.
The organizers of the Omotesando display offered 60,000 lights for Sendai to use because all of the city’s lights were lost in the tsunami. The Omotesando event also offered a donation to the disaster-hit city.
Sendai started the Light Pageant display in 1986, setting a row of zelkova aglow. That display served as the inspiration for the Omotesando display when it started up in 1991.
In this year’s Light Pageant, 160 zelkova trees are sporting about 460,000 lights, including those borrowed from Omotesando, until the end of the year.
Omotesando has cut power use by lighting up only 96 zelkovas with 650,000 lights this year, instead of 153 trees with 900,000 lights last year. It is also dousing the lights an hour earlier than last year, except for between Dec. 22 and 24.
Tokyo Tower, which boasts 50,000 LEDs on a 14-meter-high Christmas tree and 100,000 more on ornaments around it, is aglow from 4 p.m. till midnight daily until Christmas, seven hours shorter than last year. This has led to a 42 percent cut in electricity consumption, according to Nippon Television City Corp., which owns and operates the tower.
The Yomiuri Land amusement park cut power consumption by 25 percent from last year by using LED lights this year in the illumination art designed by lighting designer Motoko Ishii.
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