New Year’s Eve in Japan is a time of great celebration. While Christmas tends to focus more on couples, New Year is when Japanese families gather together, eat together and reflect on the past year, as well as the year ahead. With its clear, crisp weather, winter is also a time when many of the country’s cities are lit with beautiful nighttime illuminations. Wrap up in your best winter clothes and head out – even if it’s cold outside, you’re guaranteed a very warm welcome, wherever you go.
A cascade of lights and flowers at Nabana no Sato
During spring and summer, people flood to Nabana no Sato for dazzling displays of blossoms, flowers and foliage that spread across this 8,000-square-metre park inside the Nagashima Resort close to Nagoya in Mie Prefecture. But it’s in wintertime when the park comes alive at night, with more than five million LED lights illuminating the surroundings in cascading displays, tunnels, sculptures and much more, in a perfect blend of the natural and the human-made.
The most popular highlight is the Tunnel of Light, a 200-metre illuminated pathway providing the perfect Instagram backdrop, but it’s also worth seeking out the Cloud Sea, a carpet of blue lights that adds a cool and wintry touch to the garden. Don’t miss the Great River of Light, a dramatic installation that traverse the surface of a lake, and this season’s special maritime-themed exhibition, featuring a ship that seems to float on an illuminated sea.
When you need a break from the cold, the onsite cafes are the ideal warming refuges. Head to Café La Terrasse for coffee and cake, or settle in for an elegant Japanese dinner at Kawasemi, where the glass-walled dining room looks out onto the beautiful gardens.
While the illuminations may be predominately a winter attraction here, Nabana no Sato’s illumination season runs long, right up until the end of May. If the midwinter temperatures put you off, you’ll still be able to enjoy the show in spring.
An illuminating experience at Osaka’s Hikari-Renaissance Festival of Lights
For a more urban, yet equally beguiling, illumination experience, make your way to the Kansai region. Osaka is known as a city with an alluring personality and a captivating energy that’s all its own. So it’s no surprise that Osaka’s winter illuminations are equally dazzling.
Holder of the 2015 Guinness World Record for “most illuminated trees on a street”, the Hikari-Renaissance light festival is now in its 20th year, and this year’s display, running from November 3 to December 31, promises to be one of the best yet.
Stroll the four kilometres of Midosuji Avenue beneath a canopy of lights that twinkle in shades of purple, pink and gold, and look out for the illuminated doves symbolizing peace that adorn some of the trees. Different stretches of the street have different colour themes – the pink lights are reminiscent of cherry blossom, the purple ones give out a healing glow, and the champagne gold illuminations add a touch of glamour. There’s also a musical soundtrack that provides an auditory backdrop to the illuminations. Download the track onto your smartphone and you’ll be able to enjoy watching the colours and light patterns change in time to the music.
Pro tip – if you’re looking for Halal food while in Osaka, Honolu Ramen in Namba serves delicious Japanese favourites that fully adhere to Halal guidelines. All ingredients have Halal certification, and all tableware and cutlery has never come into contact with non-Halal ingredients. From ramen to fried chicken to gyoza, you can be sure of a Muslim-friendly meal and an equally friendly welcome.
Welcoming the Hatsuhinode, the first sunrise of the New Year
For many Japanese, one of the most important winter traditions is welcoming the first sunrise of the New Year. It’s a time to reflect on the previous year, and to enter the new one with hope and anticipation. It’s a tradition that’s also believed to bring good luck for the year ahead, with Toshigami-sama, the god of the New Year, appearing at the first sunrise.
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Oarai Isazaki-jinja Shrine is a popular spot to welcome the first rays of the New Year. The sun rising over the Pacific Ocean behind the Kamiiso-no-Torii, the shrine’s gate that sits on rocks, silhouetted against the sky is a beautiful sight, and a suitably inspirational way to look forward to the twelve months ahead.
The shrine is said to date back to 856 AD. It was destroyed by fire in the 16th century, and rebuilt during the next century, standing strong ever since and providing a spectacular way to welcome the New Year. If you’re planning to watch the first sunrise from here, wrap up warm – the Pacific winds can be cold.
Joining the locals at this special time is a great way to focus on your New Year’s resolutions with a clear head and a clear heart.
The first sunrise, and a luxurious view
January 1st can be one of the coldest days of the year, and if the thought of standing outside before sunrise is a bit daunting, you can also experience the hatsuhinode sunrise from a more luxurious environment –at the Shima Kanko Hotel The Bay Suites, overlooking Ago Bay from Mie Prefecture’s Shima Peninsula.
Dating back to 1951, the hotel has long been a favourite with those wanting to explore the beautiful nature of the region, and was also the venue for the G7 Summit in 2016. And on New Year’s Eve, it offers even more to guests – the perfect warm perch from which to watch the sun rise for the first time in the New Year. Located on Koshiko Island, all of the hotel’s rooms are spacious suites with the smallest measuring 100 square metres, and the oversized windows look out onto the spectacular scenery of Ise-Jima National Park where green islands dot the blue waters. For some of the best views, opt for a Corner Suite, with expansive views from two sides.
It’s also a great place to indulge in the region’s excellent produce. At the hotel’s fine-dining French restaurant La Mer The Classic which has welcomed many heads of states over the years, steak, lobster and black abalone are accompanied by even more of those spectacular views. Head to elegant Hamayu for a multi-course Japanese kaiseki feast, or indulge in local seafood and Matsusaka beef cooked to perfection at teppanyaki restaurant Yamabuki.
When it’s time to welcome the New Year, the hotel’s Sunset Garden, the garden on the top floor offers spectacular views over Ago Bay and the surrounding islands. And knowing that there’s a warm and luxurious room waiting for you after you’ve braved the chill means you can reflect on the year to come in cosy comfort.