Christmas in Tokyo: A Festive Tokyo Travel Guide
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Christmas in Tokyo: What to expect when traveling during the holidays
Nearly halfway through our year-long sabbatical travel adventure, we found ourselves in Japan. It wasn’t necessarily on our travel list initially (though we’ve both always wanted to visit). However, what sealed the deal was a discovery that we could get really cheaply from Japan to Hawaii. Sure, it would be winter when we hit Japan. Did we care? Not one bit.
Not too long before, THIS was our reality – sunny, hot Philippines and amazing diving.
However, we did wonder what to expect in one of the busiest cities in the world during December’s holiday season and how we might be able to plan and organize our days spent in the city. Safe to say, there is always, ALWAYS lots to do (perhaps with the exception of the New Year holiday, which is when most people get time off work). Is this amazing and bustling city on your itinerary this winter? If so, check out our Toky travel guide to spending Christmas in one of the most iconic cities.
Tokyo Accommodation: where do stay during the holidays
Tokyo does not necessarily spring to mind as a budget destination, right? Good news: it isn’t as expensive as we’d expected, and you can definitely put together a budget-friendly trip without much effort. That being said, solo backpackers will probably notice jump in spending on hostel beds, as hostels aren’t really that cheap in comparison to favorite Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar or Thailand. I don’t believe that western ‘Christmastime’ really influenced the prices here, either. Rather, you’ll see that days of the week are the factor that affects hostel prices. In short, weekends tend to be more expensive. With most hostels, expect to spend between USD 20-30 per bed, per night.
We stayed at Guesthouse Fete/Bonds House for a couple of days. This hip and cozy guesthouse offered sizeable dorm bunks for about USD 20-25 at that time. The staff was super friendly and laid-back, and the common areas were comfy. You can find a selection of import craft beers at the bar or take advantage of the cheap Japanese breakfast on offer daily.
If you’re traveling as a couple, you’re actually better off aiming for a standard business hotel. Apparently Thursdays see a spike in bookings and prices, but, otherwise, you are typically able to snatch up a decent room for about USD 40-55. (Don’t expect the room to be huge, though. You are in Japan.) We stayed at the Akasaka Crystal Hotel for a handful of nights, which was actually an excellent deal for the price. The surrounding area of Akasaka is well connected with public transport via subway and had loads of food options, both budget, middle, and high-end.
Tokyo Christmastime Activities
Tokyo Christmas Illumination: Feel festive in the big city
Christmas isn’t really a thing in Japan, as Christianity is not a major religion in Japan at all. Still, you’ll see that Japanese people LOVE Christmas lights. Illumination is a huge thing in Tokyo, and you’re looking at a line of massive proportions if you decide to go stroll through the illumination park at Roppongi. Roppongi Hills just down the road also has illuminated gardens, though these are somewhat compact. On the upside, you will likely face smaller crowds.
Eat your heart out at the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market
And if you want to go all out with the Christmas feeling, head to the traditional Christmas market at Roppongi Hills. From street level, take the elevator up towards the Roppongi Hills high-rise and head right towards the plaza between the shopping mall and the viewing deck.
The market gets an A for effort, and a B for execution. On the downside, everything at this market is stupidly overpriced (if you are familiar with these products in Germany, which we are). So, despite our homesickness, we didn’t partake in the eating and drinking here. The majority of food and drinks offered are the staples you can find at any market in Germany: mulled wine, sausages in various iterations, potatoes, etc. So while we were longing for a little taste of home, we were not desperate enough to fork out 1,500 Yen for some bratwurst. But – the option is there if you won’t let anything get between you and some sauerkraut. The Japanese certainly seemed to love all the German fare.
Partake in some seasonal shopping
What’s a better time to spend money than Christmas? Everyone loves a bit of retail therapy now and then, and it’s especially tempting if you’re surrounded by giant SALE signs. In fact, you can find loads of bargains at pretty much any shopping district in Tokyo, as winter sales are in full force. Peruse the various department stores around Shinjuku for the big brands, or head down to the quirky streets of Harajuku for specialty shops offering all kinds of questionable prints, cuts and fabrics. Second-hand shopping is a big thing in Harajuku as well, for both luxury and regular brands. Limited edition sneakers and streetwear is huge, too, and there’s plenty to choose from. Time to get those kicks!
Visit some Temples
The nearing end of the year brings the crowds to Tokyo’s most famous temples – both locals and tourist. While many locals come to pray, give thanks for the year that has passed, and hope for good tidings for the upcoming year, you’ll find many foreigners strolling around, admiring the architecture or also participating in the worship. The most heavily visited shrine for this time of the year is the Senso-Ji temple in the Asakusa district. The large temple complex will give you enough to look at during an afternoon’s stroll, and the countless dining options in the area will help you stay full and happy. Expect the temple to be crowded, though.
The crowds at the Senso-Ji temple.
For avoiding crowds and getting a unique temple experience, visit the Fukagawa Fudo Do temple. Here you can see a one of a kind ceremony during which the monks chant and play giant drums in unison. The drum ceremonies typically take place every 2 hours. Don’t forget to take off your shoes before entering the temple, and simply take a seat in what looks like a small auditorium. At the end, you can have your wallet, purse or any possession blessed – simply follow the crowd and queue up while you wait for the monks to pass personal items through incense. I have to say, this was one of the more unique experiences we had in Tokyo, and it is completely free of charge and not a very touristy thing, either. We were 2 out of perhaps 8 foreigners in an otherwise very local crowd.
It is forbidden to take pictures or videos of the drum ceremony inside the temple.
Museums, Museums, Museums
Tokyo is saturated with them. And, you’re not looking at just ANY museums. Tokyo is in par with art hubs like Paris, New York and Miami. This means you’ll get the chance to peep works of artists that you might not have a chance to come across that often. The immensely popular teamlabBorderLess museum stands out due to it being the first digital museum in the world, and it looks insanely stunning to boot. If you’d like to go, reserve your tickets well in advance on their website, and be prepared to wait in line once on site – the masses truly do come out for this. We were not lucky enough to get tickets. Boo.
Eat some Kentucky Fried Chicken
Not everyone knows this, but KFC is a sought-after ‘Christmas’ dinner in Japan! If you’re familiar with the fried chicken fast food behemoth, you’ll probably find it as hilarious as I did when I first found out a few years ago. Why is this? Well, it turns out KFC ran, at some point, a very successful marketing campaign which promoted the home of the Double Down as the perfect place for spending quality time with family at Christmastime (despite people not really celebrating this holiday). Somehow, it stuck – perhaps as one of those instances of foreign concepts being quirky and interesting enough to firmly implant themselves in different cultures (for instance, like European countries having Black Friday sales despite not having Thanksgiving to begin with, etc). So, what you do is you order a bucket of chicken and enjoy the signature strawberry shortcake.
Word of advice, though: the lines for this romantic date treat are MASSIVE. So be ready to wait for ages unless you have called in order a couple of weeks in advance.
Christmastime in Tokyo: What to keep in mind
Tokyo is a huge and crowded city and traveling during Christmastime won’t necessarily affect this – it’s busy no matter what. However, there are a few things to consider. First off, plan your travel out of Tokyo (or any major city in Japan) around the New Year holiday. The last few days of December will see a huge surge in people traveling to leave town, usually to visit families or go on holiday. So if you need to reserve those Shinkansen seats, do it a bit in advance. For those who decide to travel with the Willer buses via their bus pass, unfortunately you won’t be able to buy the pass for the Christmastime/New Year season, due to high demand. We learned this the hard way. If you decide to stay put in Tokyo, you won’t have to dodge the crowds any more than usual, though. Weather-wise, expect cold (though likely not freezing) temperatures and don’t be surprised by some rain or drizzle. Though you won’t need a heavy-duty winter coat, a sturdy, weather-proof jacket and comfortable shoes should do it. All in all, not a bad time to visit Tokyo at all! I hope you will have a blast in this amazing city. Got any questions or comments to our Tokyo travel guide? Let us know in the comments below!