In Japan, December is the beginning of the winter illumination season. Well, to be quite honest, some places open their illuminations even earlier (some as early as October!), but for the most part, December is the month where it really seems like you can’t walk a few feet without running into an illumination. They pop up at malls, in parks, on major streets – even on golf courses and at onsen! So, just what are illuminations, you ask?
Well, to preface my explanation, let me begin with telling you that Japan really has a thing for lighting things up at night. Like, Japan really has a thing for lighting things up at night. In the autumn, temples and shrines throughout the country do “Fall Illuminations” for the red momiji leaves. I went to a few of these autumn illuminations, and it is essentially just spotlights and floodlights pointed at the trees in the temple and shrine grounds. Sure, it’s pretty, and it is a unique opportunity to see the temples and shrines past their normal operating hours, but I can’t say that I’m going to wait in an hour-long line to see one again.
In the spring, Japan does spring illuminations of – you guessed it! – the sakura trees. I’ve yet to experience it myself (a few more weeks until it’s sakura season here), but a quick Google search has confirmed that yep, it is once again those good ol’ floodlights aimed at the sakura trees.
Alright, now that you guys have a sense of how much Japan likes to look at things lit up with lights, I can move on to Winter Illuminations. Now, winter illuminations are somewhat of a different beast than fall or spring illuminations. They are essentially just massive Christmas light displays, but they’re not intrinsically linked with the Christmas holiday – rather, they’re more related to the winter season itself. Maybe this doesn’t seem to be that big of a distinction, but the winter illumination displays don’t tend to feature any Christmas imagery at all. As I mentioned earlier, streets, malls, parks, and train stations deck themselves out in these exorbitant LED light displays. The fancier ones have accompanying music and time their LED displays with it, while the smaller ones may just be a street with LED lights wrapped around any trees in the area. Japan is so in love with winter illuminations that several magazine publishers release special winter event magazines with giant sections dedicated just to illuminations. I won’t lie, I totally bought one of them!
Here it is! The largest character on this cover is the kanji for winter,冬 (fuyu), and the next largest are the characters to the bottom right of that are イルミ (irumi) for illumination! If that’s not a good representation of the association of winter with illuminations, then I don’t know what is. This magazine was my guidebook for all things winter. It listed every possible illumination in the Kansai area, giving the address, the nearest train station, the times the lights would be turned on, the admission fees (if any), and the number of LED lights used in the display.
One of the very first pages of the magazine is this two page advertisement for one of the more massive illuminations. I didn’t make it out to this one because it was both far away and had a steep admission fee. That rainbow waterfall looks amazing though…
An example of the illumination write up with the dates, times, and station map. The gold star to the right tells you that this particular illumination, “TWINKLE JOYO 2015”, uses over 600,000 LED lights!
With friends and with my partner, Olin, who came to visit midway through December, I think I made it out to a total of five or six different illuminations! So let’s begin!
The Kobe Luminarie is arguably the king of winter illuminations and was by far the one of the more impressive ones I was fortunate enough to see. It is carried out once a year in the downtown area of the city of Kobe, and is a bit different from other winter illuminations in that it it is not just a winter celebration, but actually commemorates the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. The lights of the first 1995 Luminarie were donated by the Italian government, and that was supposed to be a one time event. However popular demand has turned it into a spectacular annual festival, and over 3 million people come to see the Luminarie each year. It runs for the first two weeks of December, and during this time many of the adjacent streets are closed to traffic to accommodate all the festival-goers.
In fact, the line to get into the Luminarie started several blocks away and wound through the closed streets. I think it took me and my friends over an hour of trudging along in the massive crowd before we even caught our first glimpse of the Luminarie. If you have good company, though, the slow line isn’t so bad, and the police and event organizers keep everything running smoothly and orderly. Although I felt a bit like cattle, I never felt bumped into or uncomfortably squished. The line was definitely worth it once we got to see the breath-taking display.
Remember the illumination mentioned in the magazine? Well, Olin and I actually went to that one! It was located in the small city of Jōyō, which is halfway between Kyoto and Nara. As it’s not a normal sightseeing destination, I had never been out that way before, and I was unfamiliar with the train line and the town, making this excursion a little nerve-wracking. I realized once we were there that there’s a big difference between going to an event that’s been written about in an English guidebook or website, versus going to an event you find in a Japanese guidebook. I can safely say that Olin and I were the only foreigners there. Fortunately for us, Jōyō seems used to drawing in a lot of local visitors from the surrounding Kyoto area for their annual illumination, so after a bit of frantic Japanese sign-reading, we got on the right bus from the station directly to the event site.
There was no admission fee to Twinkle Joyo 2015, so we donated a few hundred yen and went on in! In comparison to the Luminarie’s completely polished and professional set-up, everything about the Jōyō illumination felt personal. Volunteers worked the event, and the displays looked like the town came together to put it up themselves which was really nice! Twinkle Joyo is also held on a massive hill – when it’s not an illumination, I think it might be a park? – and seeing the different light displays slowly rising above you with the hill itself hidden in blackness was visually amazing!
Twinkle Joyo definitely feels like a family event. There were families with their young children all around us. Also what seemed to be a lot of middle and high schoolers on dates. Of anything I’ve been to in Japan so far, Twinkle Joyo felt the most “local” – by locals, for locals sort of feel.
Olin and I spent the weekend after Christmas in Osaka, and caught two more illumination displays (found through my magazine, of course!). The first was located in Umeda, and was a bunch of LED lights wrapped around the trees of the walkways surrounding Umeda Station.
The second illumination we went to was more of a proper illumination in the sense that it was especially constructed, held at Namba Parks. Unfortunately, my phone did zero justice to it whatsoever and I didn’t have my DSLR on me, so I’m borrowing a Google image:
We strolled along from the bottom level to the top to take it all in! It was definitely a sight to see!
The final illumination we saw was in front of the famous Osaka aquarium, the Kaiyukan. I didn’t even know the Kaiyukan had a winter illumination (although I probably should have expected it), so this third illumination was a very pleasant surprise to walk out to after spending a few hours in the aquarium.
Caretta Illumination 2015 「カノン・ダジュール Canyon d’Azur」
The final illumination I caught this winter was in Tokyo! On our last day in Tokyo, my friend suggested Olin and I check out a popular illumination at the Caretta Shiodome, a commercial complex/station exit in Shinbashi. Although the space of this illumination was physically the smallest of all the illuminations I visited, it boasted over 250,000 LED lights. Twice an hour, they also held a show, which consisted of the entire 250,000 LED display moving and changing color in time to music from Disney’s Cinderella. It was really impressive. I can’t even imagine either the engineering behind the LED control, or the physical labor it took to meticulously arrange the lights!
Alright, so that concludes this write-up on my experience visiting winter illuminations in Japan. Although ‘winter illumination’ may just be a fancy name given to LED displays, I do love how exceedingly popular they are here, with so many people going out of their way to make a trip just to see them. From the small-town feel of Twinkle Joyo 2015 to the professional Kobe Luminarie and Caretta Shiodome illuminations, I enjoyed every single illumination I came across. I guess I too like to look at things lit up with lights at night!