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Beyond the Guidebook: 5 Expats Share Their Favorite Halloween Traditions in Japan!

Beyond the Guidebook: 5 Expats Share Their Favorite Halloween Traditions in Japan!

Date published: 26 October 2018

There are, of course, many traditional holidays that are celebrated around Japan all throughout the year. However, it may come as a surprise to many that Halloween, a fairly newly adopted event in Japan, wins as the biggest celebration of them all in this island nation in Asia. Expats who’ve lived here long enough have seen the transformation it has made from small makeshift festivities to remind them of their home countries into a nation-wide extravaganza that lasts nearly all October long.

Nowadays, the spirit of Halloween is present in every corner of Tokyo - from Halloween themed packages on supermarket goods such as eggs, sausages, and candy, to bars and restaurants decorated with plastic Jack O’Lanterns and purple or black streamers. Japanese and foreigners alike flood the streets of Shibuya, Roppongi, and town-held parades bustling in stunning Halloween makeup and group costumes - some made from scratch, and many chosen from the hundreds available at the mega superstore, Don Quixote (also known as Donki). Bars and restaurants host special Halloween-themed nights and drink specials, while convenience stores (conbinis), too, participate by selling pumpkin-flavored goodies of all kinds.

Although Trick-or-Treating is not so much a casual door-to-door activity for children, and instead, held in organized circles and neighborhoods, there are still many fun activities for people of all ages to enjoy. If you find yourself in Tokyo in October, you’re truly in for a treat.

Enjoying neighborhood Halloween kids festivals!

Enjoying neighborhood Halloween kids festivals!

Jane Szafraniec
Accountant / 3 years in Japan

My son was born two years ago just before Halloween and I wanted to dress him up in a Japanese themed costume. The first year I hand-made him an ebi (prawn) sushi costume and took him to the annual Tokyo Mothers Group Halloween picnic held in Shinjuku Gyoen. For his second Halloween, I stuck with the Japanese theme and hand-made a costume that was a Cup Noodle. This time I took him to the Halloween party at Ai Port Jidokan. Since he had just begun walking steadily by himself, I also took him to the Shibuya crossing to walk through the busiest intersection in the world as a Cup Noodle at the age of one!

This year we’ll take him to our local Yoyogi-Uehara Kids Halloween Festival and possibly the neighboring Shimokitazawa Halloween Kids Festival...of course in another Japanese-themed costume! Since all my time and energy goes into making his costume, I don’t have a chance to make a costume for myself!

Fancy checking out Tokyo's Halloween madness? Head to Shibuya Crossing!

Fancy checking out Tokyo's Halloween madness? Head to Shibuya Crossing!

Cody Smith
Freelance Instructor / 6 years in Japan

Shibuya is always good for Halloween. There are usually all kinds of events going on throughout the neighborhood for the nearest two weekends to the holiday. It's cool to see Japanese people let down their guards, not be so reserved as they usually tend to be, and get into the spirit of Halloween. But recently, the crowds have grown exponentially.

If you want to check out the madness of it all, you can go to the Shibuya Scramble (famous cross street), Basketball Street, or Center-Gai and see Shibuya Halloween in all of its glory. I recommend going through Shibuya station near the Inokashira line, inside of the Tsutaya Starbucks, or to Magnet Park on top of Shibuya109 Mens to get a good view and a photo.

If you're not in the mood for becoming a part of the “human soup,” then I highly recommend finding a good place to park and take in the passers-by. Around Don Quijote is usually a safe bet. My go-to is in front of the where the old Donki used to be; there is a place to sit near the trees, some convenience stores not too far away, and plenty of people walking by. It's good if you want to feel like you're a part of the festivities without feeling like you're in a festival procession.

Two last tips: make sure you're stocked up on drinks since the conbinis tend to become empty; and, look out for “Celebrity Pooh.” He's great.

Helping make new traditions by sharing across cultures

Helping make new traditions by sharing across cultures

Tom Boatman
Owner of advertising and branding boutique, Native Creative / 28 years in Japan

Halloween is easily my favorite holiday. I like bats. I like going incognito. I like bobbing for apples. And, who doesn’t like candy? In my youth, I was a relentless trick-or-treater, ever expanding my route to score more candy. When I first arrived in Japan in 1990, there was not much going on for Halloween. It certainly wasn’t the marketing vehicle that it is today. You could not find a pumpkin to save your life. My early experiences were limited to costume parties held by fellow resident foreigners. As the years went by, I was happy to see Halloween slowly catch hold in Japan. One year, I even saw a group of mothers shepherding their children around our neighborhood for trick-or-treating. It was clear they had arranged the whole thing with pre-selected homes, probably from a local kindergarten PTA group. Thus, to my dismay, they did not stop at our house.

Passing out treats is also a great joy. However, I was lucky enough to introduce the goodie-grabbing custom to my daughter, thanks to several Halloween parties my friend staged at her house on the Boso Peninsula [around Chiba]. She also arranged trick-or-treating and, of course, all the homes were in on it, which made it even more fun as the owners went all out with spooky decorations and scary soundtracks. Late into the evening, the parents continued to party with drinking and dancing around a bonfire.

Sadly, now that my daughter is 16, she’s “too cool” for Halloween. We have some good memories, though. Every year, we still buy a pumpkin and carve it into a Jack ‘o Lantern for display outside on our garden wall, hoping to entertain or frighten the neighbors. That’s one tradition I imported from America, which I will always maintain, regardless of how ridiculously high the prices of pumpkins are in Japan.

"No one else puts as much effort into dressing up as the Japanese"

"No one else puts as much effort into dressing up as the Japanese"

Lauren Marie Vila
Curriculum Coordinator / 4 years in Japan

Halloween may have originated in the Western Hemisphere but I’ve never seen it celebrated as enthusiastically - and borderline dangerously - as in Japan. Within the land of the rising sun there lies a well-known (and well-respected) costume culture. No one else puts as much effort into dressing up as the Japanese, and boy, do they do it well. With that knowledge, there’s no sight quite like the one of hundreds of people armed with the Halloween spirit and, well, alcoholic spirits, making their way through the overflowing streets of Tokyo, rowdy and ready to rage.

I always enjoy grabbing a drink or two with friends before braving the endless labyrinth that is Don Quijote with a mission to find everything we need for a spectacular costume and night on the town - party favors, accessories, and hundreds of characters and costumes to choose from. Not only that, but chances are you’ll leave with something you don’t need, but won’t find anywhere else in the world.

And Halloween doesn’t just last a day in Tokyo - it lasts the entire weekend (and maybe even longer!). There’s no shortage of Halloween parties and events, costume contests, and trouble to get into. The energy in the streets is so intoxicating, you can’t help but feel the same excitement that was so familiar to you as a child. The only difference is that this year you’re going home with a hangover instead of a basket full of candy.

For me personally, the best part is making your way back out onto the streets to see what looks like the aftermath of the ultimate showdown - Mario is draped over a park bench while Naruto is holding back Tinkerbell’s hair while she crouches over a sewer drain. Three polite police officers do their best to subdue a unicorn that just got into an altercation with Wolverine while an entire gang of Spider-Men walk into the nearest ramen shop from where Goku stumbles out.

Halloween is magical no matter where or how you choose to celebrate it, but there really is no place like Tokyo.

Nayokenza Robyn Oliver
Vocalist, (the) Ocean and i / 8.5 years in Japan

The Hand of Halloween

As far as I can recall I was never a fan of All Hallows Eve. Perhaps it was my aversion to candy that stemmed from a possible fear of addiction, only to be stoked by the fires of my childhood disdain for dressing up in costumes. Also I was quite a lethargic child, so going around the neighbourhood for what I considered to be begging for candy that I already did not want, whilst dressed in costumes I didn’t want to be dressed in was not the way I wanted to spend the evening. My super religious family was not only pleasantly surprised by my convictions, but more than eager to forgo taking my brother and I trick-or-treating. Instead they would buy my brother candy in order to placate him, and I’d end up passing out candy to surprised trick-or-treaters who were often my age or older.

As the years progressed, I would attend fall festivals at my private school’s church or in high school go to Halloween house parties. But I never really had a fascination with Halloween outside of people watching. So in the early 2000’s, when I realised as a teen that I was going to move to Tokyo, I did not mind that Halloween wasn’t a thing in Japan.

It wasn’t until 2006 or subsequently in 2008 that I started to hear mummers of the Halloween Yamanote line party. Tales of rowdy foreigners riding the infinite loop that is the Yamanote line while undoubtedly drinking Strong Zero Chu-hi’s and wearing makeshift costumes struck me like a guilty pleasure. While, I had no desire to be a part of it, the people watcher in me wanted to witness it with my own eyes. However, I reckon that more so than the revelry that was supposedly carried out by a few expats, what really fascinated me, and made me laugh was the reaction of right-wing Japanese citizens. I remember looking at the English protest signs that read “Japan isn’t a Christian country, you betray your god” and wondering if they actually knew what Halloween was, or even cared. I reckoned it was just another chance for them to collectively flex their group think muscle.

All these years later, would prove that the joke is on them though. Because like any underground movement, I could never find actual evidence of the Halloween Yamanote parties aside from hearsay, and by the time it started to become a thing back in 2011, security had started to shut it down. Which forced said foreigners out into the streets of Shibuya, and we all know how big of a thing Halloween in Shibuya has become. I wonder where all the signs have gone.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Live Japan.

Written by:

Nina Cataldo

Nina Cataldo

Nina is a globe trotter and storyteller, constantly seeking adventures in her motherland of Japan. She's a collector of travel brochures, a lover of cats, and a half-daring foodie. She also likes to escape Tokyo city life from time to time to discover new trails in rural Japan, where she enjoys connecting with locals and wanderers alike. By profession, Nina is the co-author and editor of DUO Elements, a conversational English book series. Follow her on Instagram @nextstop_nina or Facebook @ninamcataldo.

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