These are a few of our favorite things to do this time of year, so bundle up, get out there, and make the most of Tokyo well into 2016.
By Natalie Jacobsen
A Table Set with Cheer
Should you find yourself wandering through the wonders of Roppongi’s illuminations, warm your hands (and bellies) at the 2015 Pieroth Wine Festival being held in Midtown. The fair will feature 120 wineries’ best products, and products from dozens of other global food businesses on hand with bites to eat. This will be a great event for wine aficionados, casual wine and cheese tasters, or people looking to do some light holiday shopping after work. Make Midtown a pit stop on the way to one of the several restaurants in Roppongi that have switched to their winter and Christmas menus for the holiday season.
If Midtown is old news, you might want to try out one of the newest (and tallest) hotels on the block. With a view from the 51st floor of Toranomon Hills, the Andaz Tavern in the Andaz Tokyo hotel is serving up a variety of meals with the holiday season in mind. From December 19 to 25, they’ll be serving luxurious multicourse meals featuring a mix of Japanese and European cuisine – everything from Miyazaki beef tenderloin and foie gras to fatty tuna and sea urchin. Check out their New Year’s offerings as well.
For a classic Christmas environment with charm and character, put the Imperial Hotel on your list. Their halls will be fully decked with cheerful décor and the tables of their restaurants set with plenty of seasonal edibles. The award-winning Les Saisons will be serving up lavish meals, while more traditional – but no less elegant – fare can be found at La Brasserie. They’re also hosting free concerts of Christmas music from the 23rd to the 25th.
A Joyful Noise
What music captures the essence of Christmas? We believe it’s “The Nutcracker,” the timeless Christmas classic we know from childhood – experience it live all over again downtown at the Tokyo International Forum on a free afternoon. It’s the first “Nutcracker” in four years in Tokyo, and is being performed by the world-renowned St. Petersburg Yacobson Ballet. You’ll need to be quick and book tickets well in advance, as there will only be a handful of performances this time around.
The upcoming Christmas Dinner Show at the Palace Hotel is a pricier (¥38,000) and more upscale musical event, hosted by three top Japanese performers. As the name implies, a dinner is included in the performance, with an intimate and romantic setting for the evening. The performers will be showcasing their vocal and instrumental talents, performing Christmas classics and originals.
For those looking for a more Western Christmas, with dancing and upbeat tunes for a festive mood, look to the jazz event of the season: the legendary Count Basie Orchestra is performing in Tokyo for the first time in more than 40 years of history. The swingin’ show sounds like it will uplift anyone’s moods if they have the holiday blues.
Take a Unique Perspective
Have you ever wanted to see Tokyo or Yokohama from above, without paying a fortune? I suppose if you’re queasy from heights, that isn’t at the top of your list. But many may be surprised to see that it’s much easier and cheaper than one may have imagined. For a lengthy aerial tour of either city, passengers are in for a treat that they may never forget – and may help you fall in love with Tokyo again.
A number of boat rides and water buses are available in Yokohama, Tokyo Bay, and Sumida River, for various lengths and levels of glamor. Many of them are featuring Christmas themes and dinners at this time, while others can be rented for private affairs and special dinners, fireworks, or other requests can be arranged for larger parties. The non-traditional way to see the city and the winter lights may make for a more memorable experience.
Out of Town
One of the more incredible, and unknown, places to visit outside of Tokyo is the German Village in Chiba. Rolling fields blanketed in a few million lights paint a number of different portraits across the land. Boardwalks criss-crossing around the farmland lead visitors through a small village, a market, barns, tunnels, and over the art. The large expanse is unlike all other illumination, is long running, and quite cheap to visit. It’ll require a bit of time to get to, but the homepage and reviews deem it to be quite the spectacle for people of all ages.
Ashikaga, is a more floral take on illumination: the several-acre flower park is speckled with twinkling lights for a truly breathtaking experience. Between the glass garden, the Little Prince museum, and the snowy onsen, there is much to see and do in Hakone, a favorite among couples all year-round.
Although Enoshima is visited far more in the summer, Tokyoites should consider checking the Enoshima lighthouse, the tulip garden, pagodas, and aquarium, which are all putting on an extravagant and dreamy show of lights.
For the Little Ones
Widely recognized as the number one place in Japan to experience Christmas and all of the related winter festivities, Disneyland and DisneySea do not disappoint. With potentially weeks of fun and activities packed into the area, the Disney Parks are a perfect place to haul the family to during the holidays. We recommend to plan ahead – carefully – so check the website for the calendar of shows, which characters are available when and where, and what restaurants will satisfy your pickiest of eaters. Ikspiari, the grandiose shopping area at Maihama Station, can also be a time-worthy pit stop for those searching for last minute gifts.
The local zoos across the greater Tokyo area are all sporting a number of “zoo lights” festivities this month. Tobu Zoo (www.tobuzoo.com), just north of Tokyo, may be one of the better zoos to hit up if the kids are eager to go. Closer ones, like Ueno, Inokashira, and Tama Zoo are all having smaller displays that will be nonetheless enjoyable. Be sure to double check times and the agendas of each one.
Tokyo Dome City is a viable option for families with kids pining for bountiful sweets and rides, for whom Disneyland would be out of reach. The theme park haven, nestled between fun centers with museums, rollerblading, and bowling, is a glittering spot beside Tokyo Dome at this time of the year. Though cold, it doesn’t deter fans of Thunder Dolphin. A nightly fountain show, and occasional performances by bands, makes it a fun place to check out in the evening or one afternoon.
Shopping (For Yourself and Others!)
Complete with a Christmas market, interactive games and contests, and daily Star Wars promotion events, along with 350,000 lights (350,001 including SkyTree, we’re assuming), Sky Tree Town is one of the more jovial destinations to explore in your downtime. Spread below Tokyo’s pinnacle, Skytree, the shopping center is geared for families, kids, and individuals alike.
Ginza, the first place many people think of when thinking of shopping, is not to be missed during the winter season. For those with thin wallets, there is something for you too: each street is aglow with illumination, street lamps are projecting mosaic designs on the sidewalks, and every shop window is sure to be lit up with over-the-top displays for the holidays.
Decked out in thick layers of holiday-wear, La Cittadella is a towering complex that offers more than just stores: with a grand spiral staircase wrapping around the fountain centerpiece, the tiled roofs and bright colors and decor are eye-popping. At night, live music from popular artists, coupled with a projected light show in sync to the sounds on the tower wall, will be the highlight of a busy day of shopping. Head a little ways west of Tokyo, along Keio and Nambu line, for the extravagant and European-esque shopping experience. http://lacittadella.co.jp/natale2015/
Finding yourself looking to go gift shopping all in one area? Try Daikanyama, Shibuya’s hipster cousin, stock full of original clothing boutiques and rarity music stores that emulate a Harajuku of the past. T-Site, the book and music plaza, Journey, a favorite outdoors store, Hollywood Ranch Market, a flea market-style spot, and Okura, a traditional Japanese-goods stop are just a selection of the places you can meander. The delicate illumination and rows of tidy bars and artsy cafes will be waiting when you’re about to drop. If nothing works out, head back to Shibuya and find the nearest Don Quijote.
Hitting the Ice
Tokyoites don’t have to go far to find reasonably priced ice-skating. Akasaka Sacas, in the middle of downtown and just outside exit 3 of Akasaka station, is a space in front of the Act Theatre that transforms during the winter months. Bright, colorful spotlights illuminate the skating rink, and small booths selling hot drinks are propped up alongside. Photo corners and sponsors’ tables are nearby for souvenirs.
A bit south, but never without romance and nostalgic treats, the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse (www.yokohama-akarenga.jp/en/) have their annual ice rink in place for the holidays. Ongoing outdoor attractions have been erected, and the dance halls have many artists scheduled to perform. Like other outdoor rinks in the city, the ice will be a bit rough, but the quaint, dim lights and quiet classical music will make for a less overwhelming display found in the downtown quadrants. Nest door, the Yokohama Landmark Tower Dockyards is holding both Christmas movie showings and Star Wars screenings: www.yokohama-landmark.jp/web/pickup/special/13dockyard_pm/starwars/top.html
Usually the image of summer fun, Toshimaen too will have an outdoor rink this winter, flanked by vintage mascots and hanging bulbs in the trees. Though it’ll be a bit chilly to ride the coasters, there should be smaller crowds compared to the sweltering weekends during August.
Fuji Q Highland, the more grown-up Toshimaen, is the further, but very-worthwhile place to go ice skating. With Mt. Fuji for a view, and world record-breaking coasters to ride to your heart’s content, the ice skating rink loops under bridges and around islands of illumination. The demeanor is nothing short of magic, and is less than ¥5,000 for a day ticket and bus from Shinjuku – perhaps one of the best deal for a day trip.
If you had to choose one place to see illumination (in an organized manner), one of the brightest and most decorated places appears to be Marunouchi. The theme this year, “Bright Christmas”, will include halls upon halls (yes, indoors!) of lights, an ice-skating rink, a Christmas market, live shows, and streets of decorated trees in a series of “Christmas Circus” areas to explore. The end-all for illumination shows this season, allow for plenty of time to meander all of the exhibits, as you’re certain to be one of the many sardines craning their necks for a peak at the displays. Be sure to pass by Michi Terrace for a projection show near Tokyo Station.
Sagamiko Resort, about thirty minutes outside of Tokyo, has illumination and fresh air for those feeling cooped up in the city. The Resort has adopted a rather British theme; a market with British goods and beers, images of Parliament and double-decker buses and the likes are all present. The nearby Pleasure Forest will serve as a pleasant place for a night hike – there is an illuminated train for kids to ride through tunnels that wind through the forest. The hotel at the resort too has pulled out all of the stops for the holidays, and looks to be a great one to visit.
Riding a cable car and swooping high over Yomiuriland – cloaked in canyons of LED lights – is the gist of the popular Jewellumination. Though the light displays looks like it could cause a blackout across Tokyo at any moment, it remains a favorite for youth in Tokyo. One of the more affordable parks, and much closer to downtown than others, Yomiuriland is a perfect places for dates, kids, and those needing a break from the ordinary.
Do you have any Tokyo-area holiday favorites? Let us know in the comments!