Kobe Luminarie: Wow-Inducing Winter Illumination in Japan

Kobe Luminarie is one of the best winter light displays in Japan, a free event held December 7 – 16, 2018 in memory of the victims of 1995’s Great Hanshin Earthquake. We attended Kobe Luminarie and wow is about all I can say. In this post, we’ll offer some background about the event, plus photos and thoughts from our experience at Kobe Luminarie.

Drawing over 3 million visitors each year in the span of a little over a week, Kobe Luminarie was originally created as a one-time offering as a symbol of recovery following the devastating earthquake that killed over 6,000, caused $100 billion in damage, and left many residents of Kobe, Japan in the dark due to prolonged power outages.

Kobe Luminarie was thus a symbolic response to raise spirits and promote recovery efforts. More than 200,000 hand-painted bulbs are used each year for Kobe Luminarie. The lights for the light display were donated by the Italian government, and the event’s name is the Italian word for illuminations using miniature bulbs: luminarie.

Kobe Luminarie is produced by Italian artistic director Valerio Festi in conjunction with Kobe native Hirokazu Imaoka. The display changes on an annual basis, as does the score, which consists of Italian compositions. Part of why it changes annually is likely to prompt repeat visits and encourage domestic tourism (which was also the rationale for continuing the display after its first year).

As mentioned, Kobe Luminarie is free to attend, but there are volunteers situated throughout the area soliciting donations. Between that and corporate sponsorships, millions of dollars are raised annually via the event. I’m not entirely sure what the proceeds benefit (no information was available in English), but we received a Star Wars: The Last Jedi bookmark when we made our donation, so there’s that.

Originally, Kobe Luminarie benefited survivors of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Since that was 21 years ago, it’s unclear whether the proceeds still benefit those survivors, or if money raised goes to other disaster-relief efforts (or something else entirely). Whatever the case, we got hours of enjoyment out of this “free” event, so felt it only appropriate to donate to the cause, whatever that might be.

Here’s our quick walk-through video from this year’s Kobe Luminarie:

On a trip to Japan with a ton of highlights, our experience at Kobe Luminarie is near the top. The light display was absolutely breathtaking, with elegant designs and a beautiful score.

It was absolutely mesmerizing, and I’ll never forget turning the corner and seeing the grand archways lining the streets of Kobe for the first time. Like I said at the top…wow.

Kobe Luminarie is designed with one-way traffic in mind, so you walk through the archways on the pedestrian-only streets before arriving Higashi Yuenchi Park to see the pinnacle of the display. Once you pass through the portion on the streets once, most people are “done” with it.

We couldn’t get enough, and looped back through several times through the course of the night. While the highlight is definitely the large display in the park, the entrance on the street was also absolutely breathtaking, as were the dozens of archways that led from the entrance to Higashi Yuenchi Park.

In fairness, I might be a bit biased by nostalgia. Not for Kobe I—I’d never seen it before—but for something at Epcot that bore a lot in common with Kobe Luminarie.

Yeah yeah, I know I think about things in terms of Walt Disney World too often. In this case, I’m referring to the Lights of Winter, a display on the entrance to World Showcase for several years before abruptly being shelved due to “obsolete technology.” I miss the Lights of Winter dearly, and seeing something similar again is a big part of what led us to Kobe rather than Osaka.

Fortunately, in the land of Shinkansen, revolutionary toilets, and bleeding edge robots, these lights are not obsolete. This is true from a technical perspective, as the lights are powered by biomass for minimal environmental impact and from a popularity perspective, as over 3 million visitors flock to the week-plus long event each year.

If you’re thinking of adding a visit to Kobe during December to your bucket list or are already in Japan and want some info for visiting, we have some tips…

First, location. Kobe Luminarie takes place near Motomachi Station on the JR Kobe Line starting at the Former Foreign Settlement and extending to Higashi Yuenchi Park, where the display’s “grand finale” and most captivating scene can be found. The display is lit from dusk until 9:30 p.m. on weeknights, and until 10 p.m. on weekends.

Second and most importantly, expect crowds. We deliberately delayed a planned weekend visit because we heard reports about the congestion. Even on a weeknight, it was a sea of humanity at around 7 p.m. We stayed for the duration of the lighting (for 3+ hours), and found that in the last hour of the lighting, the crowds were around half of what they were earlier in the night. After 9 p.m., that number dropped even further.

Third, there are a ton of food booths at Kobe Luminarie. This component doesn’t get mentioned much elsewhere (I had no idea based upon my research) but there are a ton of vendors from nearby restaurants and hotels serving small plates. The lines for some of these were fairly long, but the food we tried was mostly excellent and fairly priced. We spent over an hour just grazing from booths and enjoying the live music by a reflecting pool behind the main display area in Higashi Yuenchi Park.

Finally, if you plan on using a tripod, do it away from police officers. To my knowledge, there is no prohibition on their use (nothing is posted) and I used a tripod for over two hours during the course of the night. I saw many others doing the same. However, at the end of the night when barely anyone was around, a police officer manning an intersection (pedestrian-only) came over and yelled at me for using the tripod. I still have no idea as to why.

Overall, Kobe Luminarie was absolutely brilliant, and was feel worth the time and cost of the commute from Kyoto. Seeing it rekindled memories of the Epcot Lights of Winter, which was really cool for us, but even without that association, you’re guaranteed to have a good time at Kobe Luminarie. It’s one of the most beautiful light displays I’ve ever seen, with incredible production value and beauty that’s tough to beat. If you happen to be in Japan around mid-December and are bummed about missing the prime of autumn foliage season, take solace in knowing that Kobe Luminarie offers its own type of wow-inducing visuals that is also a must-see.

Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever seen Kobe Luminarie or other winter illuminations in Japan? What did you think of the display? Did you have a chance to see the Lights of Winter at Epcot before that went obsolete? Any questions about attending a winter illumination in Japan? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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7 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    I am so freaking excited. When you first saw and posted the Kobe Luminarie, I thought how beautiful and how nice it would be to see it. Thanks for posting! I would have never known this was going on when we’ll just happen to be in the neighborhood! Also, will definitely try to get a reservation to the Steakhouse.

    Reply
  2. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    This is so amazing! I’m surprised that it only runs for 10 days though. I can see why this would be a highlight of your trip. Really drives home the loss of light displays in the parks.

    Reply
  3. Bob Desmond
    Bob Desmond says:

    Beautiful colored lights display and show. Why can’t EPCOT do this??? Two reasons: It would cost a bundle to design, build, maintain and install each year. And, it would impede guest traffic flow. Sadly, Lights of Winter is gone and is a thing of Disney past. Thanks for posting this Tom. I am a sucker for a great holiday lighting display!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Last I knew, the Lights of Winter arches were still sitting backstage at Epcot, so the only real costs would be maintenance and installation. You have a point about guest flow, but I never remember it being that congested. Plus, just think of the PhotoPass pics they could sell! (Since we both know Disney is ultimately about the bottom line.)

      Reply
  4. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    These shots are absolutely stunning. I saw Sarah posted one on instagram and all I could think was “where did Tom & Sarah find Lights of Winter in Japan?!” Now I have my answer.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Just think: you “only” have to go to Japan to see the Lights of Winter again. The good news is that there are several other excellent winter light displays. There were a couple in Osaka we wanted to do, but we didn’t have the time.

      Reply

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