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Night Scenes in Japan (Photos)

Malta Atsushi (Photographs)[Profile]/Marumaru Motoo (Text)[Profile]

Japan is enjoying an ongoing boom in yakei, the appreciation of nighttime scenery, which has become a popular form of tourism in its own right. The bright lights of urban landscapes are especially popular, but there are many variations, from factories to hot springs.

Many of Japan’s traditional festivals take place at night. Among the most famous are the Neputa Festival’s parade of illuminated floats in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, and the Gozan Okuribi in Kyoto, in which bonfires lit on mountains surrounding the city form kanji characters and other shapes. Since ancient times, countless poems have been written about the moon, as one of the beauties of nature, and this longstanding affection may be a reason why nocturnal celebrations are so numerous. In Japan, aesthetic enjoyment of the night has nurtured a culture of appreciation for nighttime scenery. Over the last decade or so, this has grown into a major entertainment industry. There are now more than 1,000 spots nationwide with LED illumination installations.

White Cities of Light

Two historical factors underpin the popularity of yakei, or night scenery, in Japan. One is the mass adoption of fluorescent lights as the country rebuilt after defeat in World War II left it in ruins. These brightened family homes, banishing the darkness from corners, and combined into gleaming white cities of light. The effect is quite different from urban night views consisting mainly of orange sodium lights, as is common elsewhere in the world. It may almost seem like the ground is scattered with snow when looking out over such cities renowned for yakei as Nagasaki, Kobe, and Sapporo.

The second factor is the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s. Financial pressures forced a tightening of purse strings, fostering a boom in appreciation of night views, for which no outlay is required. As aficionados became more discerning, developing individual tastes, a multitude of different kinds of nocturnal scenery came to attention. These include the industrial pleasures of factories at night and the charm of the supermoon and other lunar views.

Discovering New Night Views

Now that the idea of yakei kankō (night view tourism) has risen to prominence, there are many initiatives around Japan for making the most of local sites. Observation decks, lights, and tours accentuate the appeal of these sites, while multilingual information helps to draw in international visitors. This year the Yakei Summit was held for the eighth time. Ongoing efforts are being made to officially designate the country’s most beautiful night views and locations for moon viewing.

Further manifestations of Japan’s love for night views include a focus on the particular shapes that city lights form, such as the swallowtail butterfly yakei of Mutsu in Aomori Prefecture. The addition of illuminations can create new sites, whether lighting up seasonal cherry blossoms and autumn leaves or places like castles, temples, shrines, railways, and the buildings of Edo period (1603–1868) post stations. In addition to yakei based around illuminations and moon watching, people are starting to discover the beauties of onsen hot springs at night and the isaribi lights used to attract fish in the Japan Sea. There is a great profundity in the Japanese night. For those seeking the heart of the nation, the answer is perhaps somewhere in the darkness.

(Photographs by Malta Atsushi. Text by Marumaru Motoo. Originally published in Japanese on April 21, 2016.)

  • [2016.05.17]

Born in 1968. Graduated from the Department of Graphic Design at Tama Art University. Began taking yakei photographs in 1994 at the same time as working as a graphic designer, and has made photography of the world at night his life work. Publications include Ajia no yakei (Asian Night Views), Sekai no yakei (World Night Views), Nihon yakei isan (Japan’s Night View Heritage), Yakei ressha (Night View Trains), and Yajō (Night Castles). Member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society. Official site:

Born in 1965. Published Tokyo Yakei (Tokyo Night Views) in 1992. Began career as Japan’s only yakei critic. His approach to yakei studies is based primarily on the beauty of landscapes and color psychology, but also extends to cover folklore studies, the history of art, economics, literature, and various service industries. He has written more than 40 books concerning night views.

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