Highlights of Japan’s Illuminations
By Andrew Smith on 5 Dec 2016
Being a Texan I’ve been known to be somewhat of a hermit during the winter season disappearing for months with nothing but the internet to sustain my social life. However I occasionally break my hibernation and venture out into the cold night to take a walk under the warm glow of Japan’s beautiful illuminations. If spring has the lovely cherry blossoms, summer has exciting festivals and fireworks, fall has golden and crimson leaves, then Japan’s winter is defined by its stunning seasonal lights. These illuminations are far more than just gaudy, blinking Christmas Trees. Japan elevates the yearly tradition by adorning entire parks or buildings with massive walls, tunnels, or sculptures of light to dazzle visitors.
In fact, you can hardly walk anywhere in the city without stumbling across breathtaking illuminations. The Shibuya area is a great example. Take a long walk from Meguro River under the lights wrapped around river’s famous cherry blossom trees to Shibuya’s Koen Dori leading up to the NHK. There you can enjoy the bright, beautiful blue LED lights as the crispy fallen autumn leaves crunch under your feet. For couples, the scene is straight out of a romantic fantasy. For single nerds, like me, it looks more like a set piece from “Tron”. Either way, your eyes will hardly believe what they are seeing as you look down the seemingly endless stream of electrifying blue lights. Back in 2014, Japanese scientists were awarded a Nobel Prize for these LED lights, and Japan is apparently extremely proud. The blue tint throughout the city has become a trademark of Japan’s winter illuminations and is a must-see.
Another display to catch while making your way through the city is Tokyo Midtown’s Illuminations in Roppongi. Take a break from shopping to relax and enjoy the fantastic light performance. Tokyo Midtown’s displays are a popular spot for Tokyoites every year as each arrangement is new and unique. This year highlights a giant orb changing colors and forms in an ocean of light as shooting stars dash around. Each loop is only about five minutes long, so the area never gets too crowded since people watch and move on fairly quickly. After all, there is still so much to do in Tokyo Midtown. You can dine at some fine restaurants or relax with a hot cup of tea at a cafe overlooking the show. Additionally, right around the corner is Roppongi hills which hosts more impressive illuminations at the base of Mori Tower. Ordinarily, this area of Tokyo is classy enough on its own and offers a fantastic view nightly of the city lights, but the seasonal decorations really bring out the best of Roppongi.
If you are in Tokyo early enough in the season, you can treat yourself to a completely different kind of light show at Rikugien Gardens located near Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line. There is an entrance fee of 300 yen for adults, but the view is well worth it. At this traditional style Japanese Garden, the well-tended trees bearing their autumn colors are lit up at night for an amazing view. The park is beautiful during the daytime, but sundown is when it really shines. The main attraction is just a simple row of spotlights illuminating the natural rich colors of the the foliage against the dark night sky, but as you go farther down the path, more elaborate lights softly glow through a dreamy mist. On your stroll through the park, you can take some incredible photos and enjoy fresh Japanese snacks like dango. With constant refreshments and evolving scenery as the sun set, I really lost time as I looped around the park taking it all in.
Rikugien’s natural approach to illuminations is simple and classic, but it may not completely fulfil expectations for brilliant, multicolored winter lights. Flashier representations of the season can be found in Japan’s many amusement parks. Tokyo Disneyland is an obvious example, but another popular place in the Tokyo area to consider is Yomiuriland. Tickets to the park and all it’s attractions for the day can be a little pricy, but just the entrance fee to walk around the park and see the illuminations is only about 1800 yen. The modern light sculptures greatly contrasts Rikugien’s and appeals more to younger groups and families. The impossibly complex illumination designs are really something to appreciate, and they really stand out among typical displays around Tokyo. One notable light show offered in Yomiuriland involves dancing fountains wonderfully illuminated in rainbow colors and expertly choreographed to music.
Though these types of theme parks are a bit out of the way, they make great use of space usually unavailable in the middle of Tokyo to create more impressive exhibits. I once visited Nagashima Resort to see the Nabana no Sato Winter Illuminations, and it is one of the greatest memories I have travelling Japan. Normally the sight is known for its vibrant flower gardens, but as the colors begin to fade toward the end of the year, the park rolls out its astounding luminous spectacles. Though it's the dead of winter, walking through the numerous tunnels while being showered in light bring about a warmth and coziness.
Eventually the path leads to an enormous field covered in LEDs displaying an incredible light sculpture of Mt. Fuji and it’s four seasons. Along with many other illuminations and attractions, the resort also holds a hot spring nearby, another great opportunity for the winter season.
If you are looking for something closer to the Tokyo area, Sagamiko Resort is a fantastic option. As you would expect, the resort goes all-out with its illuminations to attract travellers in the off season. You may want to bring some sunglasses with you, because Sagamiko Illuminations claims to use the largest number of LED lights in the whole region. I haven’t had the chance to count them all myself, so I’ll just take their word for it. In case the 6 million LED bulbs are too much to handle up close, you can try looking at them from above while riding the ferris wheel.
Every year I am impressed by Japan’s illuminations. In an otherwise dreary, cold season, they are a shining light. Most photos of Japan emphasize is bright pink spring blossoms, but winter can be just as colorful if you know where to look. There are way too many incredible seasonal light shows in the Tokyo area to mention including Omotesando, Yebisu Beer Garden Place, Tokyo Station, Shimbashi Station, Ginza, Odaiba, Tokyo Sky Tree, etc. Fortunately, they are all fairly heavily advertised. Japan takes great pride in its 4 seasons, and what Tokyo lacks in pristine snow-covered fields, it makes up for in wondrous illuminations. Each area is unique, so it is worth seeing as many as possible during this special time of year.
Andrew is an American writer living in Tokyo, Japan. He often finds himself wandering home from a livehouse after missing the last train. As an outdoors enthusiast, musician, traveler and editor, he stays pretty busy, but he is still always looking for new things to try. The only thing more unorganised than his schedule is his room.