Tokyo in December may be cold but with all the fantastic exhibitions, festivals and events it’ll be easy to keep your spirits high. Don’t forget to choose a shrine to visit for hatsumode on 31 December - the first prayer of the year will help set the tone for the coming year!
Gingko trees along Icho Namiki-dori. © Nakashi
8 August 2019 – 13 January 2020
Event: Star Wars Identities: The Exhibition
Location: Warehouse Terrada, Higashi-Shinagawa
Time: 10:00am–7:00pm (Last entry 6:30pm; Closed 21 October, 18 November, and 1–3 January 2020)
Admission: ¥3500 (Concessions available)
Rejoice, Star Wars fans! This X3 Productions and Lucasfilms collaboration exhibition is finally in Tokyo after making the rounds in Canada, Europe, the UK, and Australia. Not only do you get to see over 200 original props, costumes and artworks up close, all of this in service to constructing your own ‘Star Wars’ identity. An interactive exhibition in the best way possible for fans of the franchise – you’ll walk away from this having become a part of the Star Wars Universe.
1 November - 31 December 2019
Event: Smart Illumination Yokohama 2019
Location: Zou-no-Hana Terrace, Yokohama
Time: 5:30pm - 9:30pm
Taking place every autumn since 2011, the Smart Illumination show in Yokohama makes the city’s waterfront areas all shiny and colorful with energy-efficient lighting technology. It’s quite a spectacle and fantastic if you like bright lights - while it bills itself as a combination of art and technology, think of it as a follow-up to the summer fireworks. While the main festival takes place from 1 to 4 November, you can go any time to see the illuminations until the end of the year. Perfect for romantic strolls.
Illuminations at Caretta Shiodome. © othree
12 November – 14 February 2019
If you’re looking for winter illuminations that are just that touch more extra than the usual fairy lights, get thee to Caretta Shiodome. This Shiodome shopping complex tends to go the extra mile for its Christmas light-ups, with a light and music extravaganza.
This year, it’s all about Aladdin – enter a whole new world here! The illumination-performances run every 15-20 minutes or so between opening times, but you might want to check the calendar on their website. Bring your children - they’ll have a blast.
15 November - 1 December 2019
Event: Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Festival 2019
Location: Icho Namiki-dori & Meiji Jingu Gaien
Time: 10:00am - 5:30pm
Any ‘festival’ is really just an excuse to eat and drink under some pretty leaves. As the tall gingko trees along this avenue turn golden yellow, so too do the 40-odd food and drink stalls begin popping up around the nearby softball stadium. Make sure you check out all the regional food they’re selling, too. Even if you’re not hungry, the view of the trees is a feast for the eyes.
17 November - 9 December 2019
Event: Rikugien Autumn Leaves Light-up
Location: Rikugien, Komagome
Time: 9:00am - 9:00pm (last park entry 8.30pm)
Rikugien’s annual light-up returns! This traditional Japanese landscape garden has some gorgeous fall foliage as beautiful in the day as it is at night. In autumn, they extend opening hours to 9pm, with last entry at 8.30pm, to coincide with the evening illuminations. Be aware that you might have to contend with the post-work crowds here. But it is also one of the few places in Tokyo to see the autumn colours at night, so it’s worth a visit. Snuggle up to a special someone at the cozy teahouses in the garden and enjoy the lights.
Maple leaves lit up. © Hajime Nagahata
30 November – 1 December 2019
Akihabara is pretty much a must-visit at all times, but why not time your visit to coincide with their weekly flea market? Every weekend, the space under the railway tracks near the Electric Town exit for Akihabara Station fills up with around 40 booths. As you’d expect of the area, it’s all perfectly tailored to the otaku crowd. Think manga and anime merchandise of all stripes, from figurines to cosplay accessories, and a whole host of other delightfully strange and specific items. You’ll never have to worry about this parade being rained on, too: the flea market booths are located under the railway tracks.
This month, it’s also being held on 30 November and 1 December; 7 and 8, 14 and 15, 21 and 22, and 28 and 29 December. If you miss the first weekend, there’s the rest of the month to check it out.
1 December 2019
Billed as the largest outdoor antique market in Japan, the event attracts shoppers from all walks of life. There is quite literally everything and anything old here: Taisho-period glassware, ceramics, rusty coins, gorgeous jewelry, secondhand kimono ranging from dirt cheap to a few hundred dollars… Whether you’re looking for a cheap bargain or a rare gem from the 1880s, you’re sure to find something for your budget. Haggling is best very early in the morning or towards the end of the day, though you can spend the whole day browsing.
The market is closed in case of rain, but this market is held twice a month. So, if that happens, you can try your luck again on 15 December.
Fairytale lighting at the Marunouchi Illuminations. © othree
1 December 2019
Event: Museum of Modern Art – Free Admission Day
Location: National Museum of Modern Art
Time: 10:00am – 5:00pm
If you enjoy a place like MoMA, you’ll love the National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT). Their permanent collection primarily showcases Japanese art from the early 20th century all the way up to contemporary times – great if you ever wanted to learn more about artistic developments outside the West at that time. The Pacific War paintings are particularly worth spending some time with.
What’s even better is that the MOMAT is free to enter on the first Sunday of every month. It’s likely to be a little busy, but it’s worth braving the crowds for free entry to a museum like this.
7 November 2019 - 16 February 2020
Event: Marunouchi Illumination
Location: Marunouchi Illumination
Time: 5:30pm - 11:00pm
Clocking in at 18 consecutive years, the annual Marunouchi Illuminations is one of the longest-running Tokyo light-ups of its kind. Naturally, it's a favourite with many Tokyo residents. Walking down the champagne-coloured, fairy light-strewn, gently glittering Naka-dori never fails to induce starry-eyed Christmassy feelings in us. Sometimes literally. Naka-dori stretches for around 500 meters, from near Tokyo Station to the vicinity of the Peninsula Hotel.
6 – 8 December 2019
Event: Heiwajima Antique Fair
Location: Heiwajima Ryutsu Center Building
Time: 10:00am - 5:00pm (until 4:00pm on the last day)
This is, apparently, one of the largest and oldest antique fairs in Japan. It also attracts several hundred antiques dealers from all over the nation, so this bazaar is really less about sifting through the junk for deals, and more about quality antique pieces. Serious shoppers and lovers of all things old should go. You’re likely to score the best deals on the final day of this three-day event.
The Heiwajima Antique Fair is held 5 times a year in March, May, June, September, and December. In the event you miss this month’s fair, you can plan ahead for another one in the coming months.
12 – 15 December 2019
Event: Bungu Joshi Haku
Location: Tokyo Ryutsu Center
Time: 10:00am - 5:00pm
Stationery nerds, assemble! It may be the ‘Girls Stationery Fair,' but don’t let the gendered assumptions stop you from heading here. Running for three days, this fabulous festival showcases writing supplies of all kinds and prices, including paper, notebooks, brushes, pens, and more. There’ll be several hundred vendors here, so if you need to track down specific goods, check the website before you go.
A stall display at Setagaya Boroichi. © Hetarllen Mumriken
15 - 16 December 2019
Event: Setagaya Boroichi
Location: Boroichi-dori, Setagaya
Time: 9:00am – 8:00pm
Running annually for more than 430 years now, the Boroichi is Tokyo’s largest and oldest flea market. It’s huge: you’ll find around 700 stalls crammed into a narrow strip of road, selling anything from secondhand kimono to antique ceramics to woodblock prints. You’ll probably find everything you’re looking for, and even more that you’re not. Don’t worry about the cold, since you’ll be jostling along with 200,000 other market-goers - it adds to the spirit of the event. Just eat some of the market’s famous daikan mochi rice cakes and you’ll be good to go.
Boroichi runs twice a year, once in December and once in January. So if you can’t make it this year, head over for the first one of 2020 next month.
22 December 2019
Event: Nogi Shrine Antique Market
Location: Nogi Shrine
Time: 9:00am till it turns dark
This small-scale, local, and charming antique market takes place along the shrine’s main approach every 4th Sunday. Visit to chat and haggle with sellers over items of all kinds: from secondhand clothing to kokeshi dolls to wooden furniture to stamps from several decades ago, you might find anything and everything here. If it rains, though, consider the event cancelled.
28 – 31 December 2019
Event: Winter Comiket
Location: Tokyo Big Sight
Time: 10:00am - 4:00pm
Admission: ¥500 per day
Comic Market, or Comiket as it’s better known, is held twice a year and is one of Japan’s biggest comic events. The focus here is on dojinshi, or fan-drawn, independently-published manga. Genres and styles vary widely, as does the quality of the goods on sale. Of course, the event also attracts plenty of cosplayers, photographers, and people looking for market merchandise. If you’re looking to cosplay, you’ll need to pay a nominal JPY1000 fee to attend in costume.
Unlike shops like Mandarake, Comiket is not really for casual browsing or window shopping. The crowds numbering in the millions mean that you’ll need to know exactly which artist’s booth you’re looking for and where to find it. Bring plenty of water and enough cash for your purchases.
Fox masks. © Ryo FUKAsawa
31 December 2019 - 1 January 2020
Event: Oji Fox Parade
Location: Shozoku Inari Shrine, Oji
Time: 9:30pm onwards (Parade at 12:00am)
The Oji Fox Parade has been held annually for at least a century or two - it’s old enough that it inspired an Ando Hiroshige woodblock print. For hatsumode, the first prayer of the year, local residents in Oji transform themselves into a procession of foxes and walk from Shozoku Shrine to nearby Oji Inari Shrine. Whether you’re a participant or an onlooker, it’s a charming and fun event for all. As usual, there’ll be festival food and drink to keep you warm on this winter’s night.
31 December 2019
Much like spring-cleaning, humans also need to regularly clear out the cobwebs in our personal closets. One of the forms this takes in Japan is the Oharae, or the Great Purification Ceremony, an ancient ritual conducted twice annually at Shinto shrines across the nation. It takes place on 30 June (known as Nagoshi no Oharae, for the summer), and again on 31 December (when it’s known as Toshikoshi no harae, to herald the coming new year). It’s free and open to all at Meiji Jingu Shrine. Priests recite the prayers of purification, and cleanse you of your sins with a wand and pieces of white paper. The year-end ceremony is the last chance to clear our your closet for 2018 - metaphorically speaking! If you’re feeling a little sinful, or reeling from the aftereffects of Mercury retrograde, or just want to rid yourself of some bad juju, it wouldn’t hurt to take a gander at this.
Hatsumode at Meiji Jingu Shrine. © Dick Thomas Johnson
31 December 2019
This is the very last ceremony held at Meiji Jingu Shrine in the year. You won’t actually be able to see anything, but you’ll hear the big drums marking the beginning and finish of the ceremony. Plus, the shrine stays open all night for hatsumode, the first prayer of the year - a great way to begin 2019. Be warned that you’ll probably be accompanied by thousands of people to ring in the new year.
Tokyo Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Tokyo guide
- Check Tokyo accommodation availability and pricing on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Tokyo
- You can buy a Japan SIM card online for collection on arrival at Tokyo Narita or Haneda airports. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Compare airline flight prices and timings for the best Japan flight deals. Check my guides to arriving at Narita Airport and at Haneda Airport.
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with a Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Tokyo much easier - here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world