Kyoto can make even the gaudiest winter illuminations classy — it’s got the fanciest festive feels in the Kansai area. If you are still not filled to the brim with Christmas cheer, then head next door to Osaka’s top light-ups.

As a famously beautiful place, it might be hard to imagine Kyoto looking any better than it already does, but if you sprinkle a few thousand LEDs and wrap some fairy lights around a tree or two you’d be surprised. For more illuminations (that may finish a little earlier than Christmas), take a look at our article on autumn light displays.

Twinkle Jōyō

Photo by Kyoto Prefecture Tourism Federation

A little out of the way but still in Kyoto Prefecture, Jōyō City is fast becoming a top illumination destination in Kansai, but it’s certainly not your standard light show. Twinkle Jōyō is a community project that uses displays donated by local groups as well as companies and organizations. The event has food stalls, entertainment, and a serious number of selfie-worthy spots. Head to the Jōyō City Comprehensive Athletic Park “Recreation Zone” (or just follow the people from Jōyō Station). The park will be illuminated from December 1 to 25 from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.

Jōyō is on the way to Nara; take a JR Nara line train to Kyoto for Jōyō (35 mins, ¥370).

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Hikari no Fantasy: Kyoto Station illumination

Kyoto station christmas tree
Photo by iStock.com/winhorse

An easy way to tick off some winter illumination viewing is at Kyoto Station, which has one of the most popular displays in the city. This year will run from November 1 to March 31, 2023 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (though some displays will finish at Christmas or in January). Using thousands of lights, the already eye-catching station becomes a beacon of festive fun, including illuminations on the grand staircase, installations like Luna Garden and Star Bridge, a giant Christmas tree, and music, too. Twinkling lights transform a simple train journey into a jolly treat.

Bambio Illumination, Nagaokakyō

If you’re already at Kyoto Station to see the twinkly lights, then it’s easy enough to jump on the Tōkaidō-San’yō line and ride the train for 13 minutes to Nagaokakyō Station. Bambio Illumination is right next to the west exit of the station in Bambio Plaza Park. The light-up runs from December 9 until January 9, 2023. The point of difference for the Nagaokakyō illumination is that they employ traditional lanterns made with local bamboo (which they are quite proud of around here).

Sagano Romantic Train Light-Up

From October 15 to December 29, the Sagano Romantic Train in Arashiyama gets a little more, well, romantic. This sightseeing train will keep its normal route — departing from Saga Torokko Station (next door to Saga-Arashiyama) and winding its way along the Hozugawa River — but the familiar scenery will get a splash of light. From 4:30 p.m. until the last train, you’ll be able to spot lit-up tanukis (Japanese raccoon dogs), bright mountainsides, and glowing bridges.

The journey costs ¥880 and tickets can be bought at Saga Torokko Station, which is only 17 minutes on the San-In line from Kyoto Station.

The Dandelion Project

Hikone Castle lit up | Photo by Naked Co., Ltd.

From light, projection mapping, and design wizards Naked Inc. and artist Ryōtarō Muramatsu comes The Dandelion Project. It’s more of a light and projection mapping art project than a traditional illumination event, with different landmarks around Kyoto transformed into giant canvases. Not all of the venues are open to the public, but the ones that are include Heian Jingū Shrine (Nov. 18–Dec. 25) and Kyoto National Museum (Dec. 10–Dec. 25) in Kyoto and Hikone Castle (Nov. 5– Dec. 3) in Hikone, just over the border in Shiga prefecture.

Synesthesia Hills Illumination

While this particular spot for music and illumination is open year round, it gets an honorable mention because, hey, it’s the season for bright lights and here they twinkle in spades. There are 12 different installations, including Crystal Lake, Aurora Experience, and Spiral Light Tunnel. For Christmas, there’ll also be added candle lights and a hot air balloon. Tickets are ¥1,000 for adults on weekdays and ¥1,200 for weekends and holidays, but go up to ¥1,800 for a few days around Christmas (Decemeber 23–25).

It is a little far from Kyoto Station — 30 minutes by train to Sonobe Station on the San-In or Hashidate line and then another 30 minutes by bus to Rurikei Onsen.

This post was originally written in 2018 and was last updated in December 2022.

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