Christmas and New Year in Japan

Many people ask me if Christmas is celebrated in Japan. If you visit Japan in the last week of the year, you’ll probably see Christmas trees on display in hotel lobbies and beautiful Christmas decorations adorning the shops and department stores. You may even receive Christmas gifts from Japanese friends and hear Christmas carols being played in their homes. However, these customs are adopted from abroad and Christmas is not strictly celebrated in Japan, as the emphasis is on New Year Celebrations.

There are quite a few traditions associated with the Japanese New Year so I’ll try and explain a few of the main customs. Many people will send New Year’s Day postcards which are usually handwritten, but with the introduction of computer software it’s now possible to customise your cards and simplify this tradition if you have hundreds of postcards to send. Traditional food known as osechi-ryori is also eaten during New Year celebrations and this can vary from region to region (see picture below). It’s also common for children to receive a gift of money on New Year’s Day and this is given to them in envelopes decorated for the occasion. Rice cakes known as mochi are also prepared in the New Year period and eaten in January. If you’re lucky enough to stay with Japanese friends at New Year then you’ll probably be watching the very popular NHK music programme called Kohaku Uta Gassen on television, which showcases the most popular music for that year. Lastly, in the first few days of the new year, millions of people throughout Japan will visit shrines or temples. If you’re in Tokyo then Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a popular place to offer a prayer.

New Year food

I wouldn’t recommend a short visit to Japan during the New Year period as many shops, tourist attractions and even restaurants could be closed for as long as two weeks during this period. Many Japanese will take a holiday and often travel to domestic or overseas destinations at this time.

So don’t be afraid to give your Japanese friends Christmas presents as I’m sure they’ll be appreciated but it would be nice to try and understand some of the New Year customs and join in with these Japanese traditions to fully enjoy the festive season when you’re in Japan.

Check out Shimokitazawa (下北沢) when you’re in Tokyo

Shimokitazawa is an area that I always visit when I’m in Tokyo. It’s currently being pitched as a great place to live and anyone who has been there certainly knows why. Located in Setagaya and known to the locals as “Shimokita”; you’ll be completely charmed by this must-see town if you include Shimokitazawa in your Japan itinerary. The many lanes and alleyways that surround the train station are overflowing with students, artists, musicians and fashionistas. If you’re looking for street fashion then the independent boutiques in this area will not disappoint. As the sun goes down, you and your friends will be spoilt for choice with the many izakayas, bars and restaurants lining the paths. Take the Odakyu line from Shinjuku or the Keio Inokashira line from Shibuya and exit at Shimo-Kitazawa station.

I couldn’t resist mentioning Shimokitazawa in my novel Tokyo Hearts: A Japanese Love Story. Below is a photo of the drinking hole called ‘Enya’ – the izakaya I wrote about in my book.



Westerners are often fascinated by the Japanese geisha and their so-called flower and willow world. A well-known book by Arthur Golden called Memoirs of a Geisha turned out to be a best-seller. However, this book did receive a lot of criticism from the geisha in Japan for being highly inaccurate.  Below, I’ve listed several other popular books dedicated to geisha that you may find interesting:

•Geisha by Liza Dalby

•Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

•Geisha: A Living Tradition by Kyoko Aihara

•Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World by Lesley Downer

•Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West by Lesley Downer

•Autobiography of a Geishaby Sayo Masuda

•A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice by Komomo & Naoyuki Ogino

I also recommend a visit to Laura’s Itsumo Japan blog for further information on geisha. Here you’ll also find a comprehensive list of resources and books dedicated to a variety of topics related to Japan.

Below are some pictures taken by my husband and me during our most recent trip to Japan. At around 6:00pm, if you wander through the Gion district in Kyoto (which is very central and not difficult to find) you’ll definitely have an opportunity to see geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha). All these photos are of maiko on their way to or coming back from a party or a meeting with clients. Maiko are easily recognised by their intricate and very pretty hair ornaments:




The Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund

Tohoku fund

10% of the author’s profit from the sale of the paperback Tokyo Hearts in 2012/13 will be donated to the Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund.

The Japan Society has watched with deep sadness as news unfolds of the scale of damage from the Tohoku Pacific earthquake on March 11 2011. The Japan Society extends their heartfelt sympathy and condolences to all who have lost loved ones or been affected by the disastrous events.

The Japan Society has created a relief fund to aid victims of the Tohoku earthquake. All funds received will be distributed to organisations working to help people in the affected areas recover from the devastating effects of the earthquake and the tsunami. The Japan Society is working in partnership with the Sanaburi Foundation to ensure funds are targeted to meet specific needs.