I am not the religious type, but I do enjoy engaging in Christmas activities, so as soon as the calendar hit December 1st, I headed with a friend to check out one of the Christmas markets Tokyo has to offer to get into the Christmas spirit, specifically, the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market. Having come from a city that hosts the largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany, it’s safe to say that the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market was on a significantly smaller scale to what I am used to; having 11 stalls as opposed to over 80. However, this smaller-scale lent itself to a more quaint and intimate experience. When spending Christmas in a country that isn’t Christian, it’s a very different experience to what you are used to. There aren’t Christmas lights and decorations on every street they’re mainly in the main tourist areas, not every store you walk into is blasting the Christmas classics, it’s considerably warmer, and the trees are still shrouded with green leaves.
I thought the best way to inject some Christmas cheer into me was to visit a Christmas market. It was a slightly chilly December evening, and after initially struggling to find the market, I saw the warm glowing lights and a Father Christmas statue, along with his reindeer standing joyfully atop some wood-paneled, German-style stalls. The area was bustling with locals, young couples, tourists and groups of friends alike, hoping to get a taste of a traditional German Christmas Market in Japan. The area was in a sheltered but also outdoor area of the plaza, meaning that there were a number of heaters dotted around the area to keep visitors warm on this cold December night. There were a number of standing tables as well as some tables and chairs that visitors could make use of during their visit. The 11 stalls offer Christmas crafts, foods, and drinks, and I was there to see how they stacked up in comparison to other Christmas markets I’d been to.
The drinks on offer were a celebration of traditional German beverages that are typically sold at Christmas markets in Europe, but slightly smaller portion sizes, primarily offering half-pints (as opposed to whole pints) of Weltenburger Kloster or Hofbrau Münchener Wiesbeer beer, smaller portions of Glühwein, a hot mulled wine, and hot chocolate. I opted for the Glühwein to warm me up and it was served with an orange slice and cinnamon stick. It was authentic tasting, well spiced, and you could taste the deep rich flavor of the red wine, with it being slightly sweet to counter the rich cloves, star anise, and cinnamon spices that are added for that perfect winter warmer. I also tasted the Pompom hot chocolate, which was topped with cold whipped cream and pastel-colored sprinkles along with pompom-like sweets to replace the usual marshmallows. It was expectantly warming, sweet and chocolaty, making it perfect for hitting that sweet spot.
The food on offer was predominantly bratwurst sausages with a large variety on offer as well as meat stew, German steak, roasted turkey legs, pretzels, and fries. I chose the German curry hot dog, and my friend chose to have the fries with the seven-cheese dipping sauce. The hot dog was typical in German-style, long, bright red and inside a small, soft bun. Under the hot dog was some curried, luminous yellow onion pickle with a curried, sour taste which cut through the fat of the hot dog resulting in a balanced flavor that paired well with ketchup. The fries were well cooked so that they were crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. There were different cuts of potatoes, some in typical fry-style and others that were round in shape. The cheese sauce wasn’t the best accompaniment, and you certainly could not tell there were seven different types of cheese in it. It also solidified rather fast due to the cold temperature outside and the inability to find a spare table to perch on, making it difficult to dip, which was unfortunate.
For pudding, I was hoping to try the churros but was disappointed to find out that they had already sold out, despite it only being half-past five. I decided to try the pretzel as I have been missing the salty aspect of food here, as many breads and foods, in general, have sugar added to them. The warm, soft pretzel was in the typical knot shape and was dark brown in color. Its appearance was rather lacking in the usual large salt granules or sesame seeds, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. The taste was somewhat lacking in the traditional balance of slightly sweet, yet predominantly salty, and was slightly dull in taste. The thicker end of the pretzel had a surprising element of melted butter running through it. However, the butter wasn’t the usual lightly salted as what I am used to, but in true Japanese fashion, it was a little sweet and didn’t quite work.
As well as the food and drink on offer, there were a number of small craft stores offering some Christmas goods that are perfect as souvenirs or presents. The main one had a queue around the corner to get inside and was selling traditional nutcrackers and what looked like painted wooden ornaments of Father Christmas, snowmen, Christmas trees, and other Christmas-themed objects. There is also a store selling traditional Rasp spice decorations with holiday-themed decorations and wreaths made with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. Towards the back of the market, behind the food stalls, there were three small stalls selling Christmas tree ornaments. There were petite gold angels perching in the middle of stars, white snowflakes, red berry, and foliage-shaped hearts, and tiny wooden Christmas trees hanging off maroon ribbons that would be sure to brighten up any Christmas tree.
One thing that’s for sure is that during winter the Japanese can’t get enough of illuminations after dark. So, while you’re in the area, why not check out one of the many illuminations that take place across the city in Roppongi, which are outside Tokyo Midtown. The display on the Midtown lawn is under five minutes and is on constant repeat. You can gaze in wonder as the lights change from blues to pinks to reds in time to soothing music, and you can watch white bubbles being blown into the sky with Tokyo Tower illuminated in the background. It’s quite the spectacle to which the locals are obsessed with.
The Roppongi Hill Christmas Market may be a little small and cliché if you are used to European Christmas markets, but if you’re in the area and craving a German sausage or fancy some mulled wine, it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. However, I think there are other, perhaps bigger, markets happening around Tokyo where you might get more variety in food, drinks, and gifts. The Tokyo Christmas Market is starting on the December 6th and seems to be a lot bigger and more like the traditional German Christmas Markets which I think will be more worth visiting. I would recommend going on a weekday when it’s a little less busy as the weekends can get very crowded, even at such a small venue.
For more seasonal winter things to do in Tokyo, see our post covering Tokyo Events in December!