Here’s a rundown of special Kyoto events that happen during December. This is a good month to visit the city – you might catch the tail end of the fall foliage season and, if you’re lucky, you might see some of the city’s beautiful gardens under a dusting of snow.
image © Jeffrey Friedl
What Happens For Christmas And New Year in Kyoto?
December culminates in the most important event of the Japanese year: Oshogatsu (the New Year’s celebration). For a detailed rundown of what to expect from Christmas in Kyoto and New Year’s In Kyoto, follow the links. Below are the special events that take place in Kyoto throughout December.
Is It Likely To Snow In Kyoto During December?
Most of the time when it snows in Kyoto, the snow rarely stays on the ground. However, a couple of times each winter, the snow sticks, creating a magical effect in Kyoto’s gardens and temples. See Does It Snow In Kyoto? for more details.
1-2 December 2018
Event: Kiyomizu-dera Temple Night Illumination
Location: Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Commanding a magnificent position on a hill in the Higashiyama District, overlooking the entire basin of Kyoto, no temple is more spectacular after dark than Kiyomizu-dera Temple. When the autumn colors are working in early December, a pilgrimage here to enjoy the night time illumination is not to be missed!
1-2 December 2018
Event: Konkaikomyo-ji Temple Autumn Special Opening
Location: Konkaikomyo-ji (Kurodani-san)
Located up on Yoshida-yama Mountain (it’s really just a hill) in the Northern Higashiyama sightseeing area, Kurodani Temple has always been one of my favorite temples, perhaps because I used to live nearby and strolled through the grounds every morning. The graveyard and main hall here are wonderful, but you usually cannot enter the exquisite garden. However, if you’re in town the first week of December, the gardens are open to visitors and should not be missed.
1-2 December 2018
Event: Shoren-in Autumn Night Illumination
Location: Shoren-in Temple
Time: 6:00pm-10:00pm (enter by 9:30pm)
Shoren-in Temple is one of the lesser-known gems of the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district and it takes on a truly magical air when the garden is illuminated by night. Don’t miss the bamboo forest here when you go – the illumination makes it truly otherworldly.
Kodai ji temple in autumn
1-9 December 2018
Kodai-ji Temple is an otherworldly place when it’s illuminated at night. The bamboo grove here looks like something out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. People pack in for this event, but it’s worth dealing with the crowds to enjoy this sight.
1-26 December 2018
The winter kabuki season starts in December at Minamiza in Gion. This is a great chance to see kabuki and you don’t have to stay for the whole show (usually one or two acts are sufficient to get a taste). You can usually get tickets at the ticket window of the theatre. For more details on seeing kabuki in Kyoto, see our Kabuki at Kyoto’s Minamiza Theatre page.
2 December 2018
Event: To-ji Temple Flea Market
Location: To-ji Temple
If you can’t be in town for Kyoto’s two famous flea markets (Kobo-san Market and Tenjin-san Market), this is a good choice. Like the Kobo-san Market, it’s held on the grounds of To-ji Temple. You’ll usually find a good selection of antiques at this market.
Arashiyama Hanatouro – image © Jeffrey Friedl
8-17 December 2018
Event: Arashiyama Hanatouro
Location: Saga Arashiyama area
This is a magical event thousands of lanterns are placed along the lanes of Arashiyama, including the walkway through the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The effect is otherworldly. And you’ll find beautiful ikebana (flower arrangement) installations scattered about. If you’re in town, don’t miss it!
13 December 2018
Event: Kotohajime (Geisha)
Time: starts at 10:00am
Kotohajime is an event in which Kyoto’s geisha pay visits to their teachers (dance, song, tea ceremony etc) to thank them for the previous year and ask their favor for the coming year. It happens in all geisha districts, but it’s easiest to spot the geisha of the Gion geisha district, some of whom make their way along scenic Hanamikoji Street.
15 December 2018
Chion-ji Temple hosts a fabulous handicraft market on the 15th of every month. It’s a great place to pick up unique, locally made souvenirs during your travels to Kyoto. It’s also a good chance to see Japan’s alternative community and local expats.
21 December 2018
Event: Kobo-san Market (Shimai Kobo)
Location: To-ji Temple
Named for Japan’s most revered Buddhist Saint, Kobo Daishi, this market is one of the two best markets in town (the other being the Tenjin-san Market, held on the 25th). You’ll find all manner of goods on sale here including used kimono, antiques, ceramics, food, bric-a-brac, old postcards and books, and assorted Japanalia. In addition to being a great market, this is also a chance to see Kyoto’s foreign community, which turns out in full, along with hoards of locals.
25 December 2018
Event: Tenjin-san Market (Shimai Tenjin)
Location: Kitano Tenmangu
Like the Kobo-san market (see previous), this is one of the two best markets in town. It’s named for Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th century poet and scholar who is the patron saint of academic pursuits in Japan. Known colloquially as Tenjin-san, the market is a great excuse to visit this shrine and see people, especially school children, rubbing the two stone bulls in front of the main hall of the shrine (doing so is said to make one more intelligent). Like the Kobo-san market, this is a great chance to buy used kimono, ceramics, antiques and bric-a-brac, along with food and drink. You’ll also rub shoulders with an interesting assortment of expats and locals.
Bamboo grove during Arashiyama Hanatouro festival
31 December 2018
This is an interesting twist on the usual hatsumode (first shrine visit of New Year’s). Here, people visit Yasaka-jinja Shrine and purchase sacred ropes, which they then set alight from piles of burning prayer sticks. They then try to transport the rope home without it going out. To do so, they keep the ember burning by swinging the rope around in circles. Needless to say, you can’t take the burning ropes on buses, trains or taxis, so it helps to live within walking distance of the shrine! Once home, the fire is used to light a cooking fire and a sacred candle. Sacred rice cakes are then cooked over the cooking fire.
31 December 2018
Location: temples in Kyoto
Time: around midnight
After feasting on New Year’s Eve, many Kyotoites head to their local temple to perform joya-no-kane, a sacred bell ringing ceremony. Here, people line up to ring the giant temple bells and wish for good fortune in the New Year (and to get rid of bad karma from the old). Technically, the bells are supposed to be rung 108 times, a number symbolizing the sins to which the flesh is heir, but many temples will allow everyone a chance to ring the bell even if it exceeds this number. For more on joya-no-kane see New Year’s in Kyoto.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability 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 Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router.
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass - here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)