Christmas in Kyoto – What to see, do and eat

Winter illuminations, KFC buckets, and romantic dates! Christmas in Kyoto is filled with Christmas spirit, even though it is not a national holiday. All around the country, Japanese people love to celebrate this unofficial holiday with their own unique Christmas traditions in true Japanese style. In Kyoto, there are lots of little charms that make celebrating Christmas in this beautiful city an awesome experience!

Japan is mostly Shintoist or Buddhist, with Christianity making up only a tiny proportion of the population. But as Japan prepares for its traditional New Years holidays, western ideas about Christmas absorb into the end of year celebrations. While there isn’t any particular religious association for many people, it’s still a time for people to get together and have fun.

Drawing of a couple having a romantic christmas date in tokyo
A Christmas date in Kyoto

Christmas Day in Kyoto

For locals, Christmas in Kyoto is a time for friends and couples to meet up, throw parties and have dinner together. By contrast, New Years tends to be more for big family gatherings.

For couples, Christmas day is considered one of the most romantic days of the year, on par with Valentines day, and the day of year that people go out on big dates. Gift-giving is usually done between couples, but doesn’t really expand outside of that.

Christmas food in Kyoto

You typically won’t find roast turkey, gravy, ham and applesauce in Japan over Christmas (or if you’re Australian like me, steaks and sausages on the barbeque). Japan does Christmas dinner in their own unique way. And it’s not even with Japanese food…

Christmas fried chicken!

The main meal during Christmas may come as a surprise – millions of families all over the country order buckets of fried chicken, usually from KFC! People order their Christmas KFC buckets weeks and weeks in advance of the actual day, and for those who didn’t plan ahead, the line for fried chicken can be hours long. But don’t worry – if you’re not willing to wait at KFC for so long, department stores and even convenience stores sell fried chicken too!

Drawing of Japanese fried chicken Christmas KFC bucket
Japanese KFC Christmas bucket

The origins of celebrating with fried chicken started in 1974, when a huge marketing campaign by KFC manager Takeshi Okawara promoted the ‘party bucket’. The idea apparently came to him after overhearing foreigners in Japan talking about missing their favourite food whilst abroad.

Christmas Cake in Japan

There is an official Christmas cake throughout Japan that is eaten on Christmas Day; the kurisumasu keki (say it out loud, and you’ll hear it sounds almost like ‘Christmas(u) cake(i)’). It’s a light, fluffy sponge cake layered with cream, and topped with strawberries.

You know the little cake emoji on messenger? That’s a kurisumasu keki!

かわいいクリスマスケーキいちご京都クリスマス
Kawaii Kurisumasu Keki

For those who aren’t keen on kurisumasu keki, another popular sweet option is wagashi (japanese sweets), which are cute little jellies with flavours such as red bean, agar, and rice.

Kyoto Christmas markets

Kyoto puts on Christmas entertainment in the forms of two main attractions – lively Christmas markets, and spectacular displays of lights and illuminations. Markets pop up all around the city, but here are some of the most popular.

On the 21st of December is the Kobo-san Market, named after Kobo-Daishi, Japan’s most revered Buddhist saint. Market stalls serve food and drink, as well as books, ceramics and other souvenirs. The Kobo-san Market is popular with locals and expats alike.

The Tenjin-san Market is held on the 25th of December, named after the 9th-century poet Sugawara no Michizane, the patron saint of learning in Japan. It is held at the beautiful Kitano Tenmangu temple, and there are food stalls, kimonos, crafts, and other items to be found.

Kyoto’s winter illuminations and tourist sights during Christmas

One of the best things to do on Christmas Eve in Kyoto is to wander around some of the city’s main nightlife areas and take in the famous winter illuminations. Gion is one of the most popular spots for this, as a centre of entertainment, nightlife and dining.

Sketch of a Japanese Geisha walking through Kyoto at night
A geisha walks through a lantern lit street in Gion

Most of Gion’s temples are lit up with beautiful illuminations, and there are extended opening hours. Kodaiji temple park sets up a stage for live music, and there are street performers near Kiyo-mizudera.

Many places around Kyoto set up thousands and thousands of illuminated light shows, lanterns and Christmas lights that are free to check out. Some of the most popular are at Kyoto Botanical Gardens, Kyoto Hotel Okura, Doshisha University, the ROHM Illuminations, and the Kyoto Station Building.

The ROHM illuminations are put up by ROHM, a large superconductor company that manufactures electronic components. They illuminate rows of trees with hundreds of thousands of light bulbs that shine so brightly, the trees themselves look like they’re glowing!

Arashiyama Christmas lights

The famous bamboo forest and surrounding areas of Arashiyama display wonderful light shows from the 13th to 22nd of December. The Arashiyama Hanatoro lights up with over 2400 lanterns that start at Kiyo-mizudera, and run all the way along to Shorenin. The bamboo forest lights up in soft glows of orange and yellow. It’s particularly worth checking out the Togetsukyo Bridge, which is fully lit up at night.

Urban sketching Arashiyama bamboo forest christmas lights
Arashiyama Hanatoro winter illuminations

Fushimi Inari at Christmastime

The torii gates at Fushimi Inari don’t have any special Christmas events, but if you plan on visiting at New Year’s, be advised that the shrines are incredibly popular with locals, who come here to pray in the new year. The mountain will be filled with people, so if you’re expecting a quiet visit, the New Years period might not be the best time to come.

Christmas opening hours in Kyoto

Because Christmas is not an official holiday, all stores and restaurants are usually open at their usual times. But New Year’s Eve, however, is a holiday, so be mindful that things may close down from the 29th onward.

Our unique Christmas experience in Kyoto

During our travels around Japan, we ended up spending the Christmas period in Kyoto. The weather was getting pretty chilly, and we had beanies on and winter jackets zipped up tightly. While it does snow in Kyoto from time to time, our Christmas was snow-free.

Our first Christmas in Japan was neither like a western Christmas, or a Japanese one (we didn’t have roast turkey, nor the ‘traditional’ KFC!). Instead, we made Christmas eve our fancy Japan date night. We found a delicious Izakaya restaurant, slipped off our shoes and sat on tatami mats while we ate a delicious feast of beef chashu, chicken karaage, miso soup and agedashi tofu.

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Have you ever spent Christmas in Kyoto, or another Japanese city? How did you find the experience, and what kind of Christmas dinner did you eat? Let me know in the comments below!


4 thoughts on “Christmas in Kyoto – What to see, do and eat

  1. Christmas is Tokyo between the years 1980-1984. We celebrated part Japanese & America at the American Club. Traditional food from both countries. There were many Japanese dinners with business people that were memorable though.Love your sketches! 📚🎶 Christine

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