A journey to Japan

In addition to enjoying the country’s courteous culture and breathtaking beauty, one can also live a Jewish life in Japan.

December 16, 2010 18:32
Zen Buddhist Golden Temple in Kyoto

Japan lake 311. (photo credit: ALEX DEUTSCH)

AJewish roots trip to Japan? Well, not exactly. Jews number about 2,000 in this country of 127 million, so the Jewish presence doesn’t exactly stand out.

And yet there’s a large academic group who believe the Japanese are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel and cite remarkable similarities, such as the fringes on the garments of Shinto priests and the movable altars that match the description and measurements of the Ark of the Covenant from the Bible. And there are constant reminders that it’s possible to live a Jewish and kosher life in Japan. Wonderful Chabad in Tokyo, the Kobe synagogue with its congregation of Israeli expatriates and their often converted Japanese wives, and the Tokyo Jewish community center with a new and splendid Conservative synagogue all make you feel you can be seriously Jewish in Japan. You just need to want to.Then there are the Japanese who adore anything Israeli – the Makuyas and the incredible Beth Shalom of Kyoto. And a Jewish tour to Japan must include homage to the “Japanese Schindler,” Chiune Sugihara, the consul in Lithuania in 1944 who is credited with saving 6,000 Jewish lives.

But let’s not be too insular. Even without the Jewish angle, Japan is fascinating, beautiful, a country of warm, friendly and achingly polite people, a country of breathtaking scenery and elegant skyscrapers – spotlessly clean, vibrant and a feast for the eyes and the soul.

Our group, which toured Japan at the end of October and beginning of November, was made up of 14 English people, four Americans and five Israelis and was organized from London by Aviva Preston and her husband, Robin. Our guide was South African-born Israeli Menahem Fogel, who clearly knows and loves Japan well and is so brilliantly articulate that he was able to convey this love with an enthusiasm bordering on passion. Well known for his “Meander with Menahem” column in The Jerusalem Post, he would begin every day when we boarded our inter-city bus to start touring with an account of what happened “this day in history.” It was an intellectually stimulating start to what always proved a fascinating day of touring.

We were plunged right into the incredible beauty of the countryside with the first day’s tour – a trip to Nikko, which is about a two hours’ drive from Tokyo. Whether by good luck or good management is not clear, but the autumn reds and yellows, rivaling anything New Hampshire has to offer, were at their peak during our visit at the beginning of November.

The area is one of surpassing beauty with waterfalls, a backdrop of mountains, graceful trees stretching over the tranquil lake and the startling colors of a Japanese fall.

We had our first taste of many shrines we were to see over the course of the two weeks with a visit to what is considered the most impressive of them, Toshogu, the burial place of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, who, we learned, was responsible for the unification of Japan and the eventual restoration of the imperial family. It became routine to remove one’s shoes, hope no holes had developed in one’s socks and enter these places of worship to admire the ornate lacquer and filigree metal work.

The next morning at five we were scheduled to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market, to be present at one of the auctions where bluefin tuna are sold for thousands of dollars. Fortunately, the organizers relented and we were able to visit this Tokyo landmark at a reasonable hour.

Now very popular as a tourist site, the huge market has to be negotiated carefully to find the way between the hundreds of stalls displaying their wares. Forklifts, scooters and trucks weave in and out, and water sloshes around everywhere.

We were told to walk in groups of no more than four, as the combined body heat might affect the surrounding temperature and be detrimental to the fish. The huge area is spotlessly clean, and in spite of housing thousands of tons of fish, barely gave off a fishy smell – everything is so fresh. No wonder the Japanese invented sushi.

Having made such an early start, we had the whole day to taste other delights of Tokyo. One could spend hours in the Edo-Tokyo Museum housed in a startling building designed by architect Kiyonori Kikutake, which was dubbed “a big, faceless, granite dog” by one of many critics. The museum tells the history of Japan with the help of attractive and child-friendly models of the different periods and the life of the ordinary people. Whenever you tour a museum in Japan, you will see orderly lines of schoolchildren in their uniforms behaving impeccably.

BEFORE SHABBAT we were let loose in the glittering downtown area of Ginza, the Bond Street, Fifth Avenue and Champs-Elysées of Tokyo. There are as many if not more welldressed people per square foot than in any of the other cities. The big designers are here and their fashions are on display, not just in the wide windows but on the pedestrians walking up and down the wide pavements. Prices were astronomical, so the most one could afford was a bag of hot chestnuts from a sidewalk vendor to tide one over until the dinner at Chabad that evening.

There we experienced the usual warm welcome that Chabad rabbis and their hard-working wives accord to any guests, and one marvels yet again at the vision of the Rebbe for sending his emissaries around the world. Helping to serve was a long-time Jewish resident of Tokyo, an American who was something of a mystery and slightly reticent about himself, only revealing that his occupation had something to do with goldfish. Only later did we discover he was Noach Teitler, one of the world’s leading ichthyologists and personal adviser to the emperor on goldfish and has written five books on the subject.

It was Sunday and time to be on the road again, leaving Tokyo for the long drive to Hakone, passing Mount Fuji on the way and hoping for a glimpse of the top of the sacred mountain whose summit is always covered in snow and obscured by clouds. Our lovely Japanese guide, Chiharu, explained in her perfect English that the Japanese say Fuji is bashful and never shows her face entirely, but we did manage to catch some incredible views of the highest mountain in Japan in the distance.

First stop was a Shinto complex dedicated to the memory of Emperor Meiji, the one who ended the corrupt shogunate in 1867. We watched as people came to pray, ringing a bell to attract the attention of the spirits and clapping their hands twice before praying. The priests walk around the complex, their fringes flying in the breeze.

Hakone is the site of a wonderful open-air museum which has some startling works of art distributed around its rolling green lawns. Seeing monumental Henry Moores and Picassos in this setting, surrounded by distant blue mountains, only adds to the thrill. There is also a Picasso indoor museum, home to some of the master’s most famous works.

Later that day we climbed up Owakudani, a sulfurous crater still bubbling with steam and hot springs. It was a fairly hard climb of 10 minutes, definitely not for the faint-hearted, but the feeling of achievement at the top is incomparable.

Up there, one can buy hard-boiled eggs, cooked in the hot water and blackened by sulfur. When eaten, the eggs are said to prolong one’s life by seven years.

That evening after dinner, Chiharu taught us all to make origami cranes, which were to be hung at the children’s peace monument in Hiroshima the following week.

First, though, we were heading for Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. Before reaching the bullet train that was to take us there, we had an important visit to make. Our bus took us to the village of Yoatsu in the Japanese Alps, where the home of Chiune Sugihara has been turned into a museum to commemorate his extraordinary acts of selflessness and courage. Entirely on his own initiative and in defiance of orders from Tokyo, he signed thousands of transit visas for desperate Jews trying to escape Eastern Europe.

He knew he was risking his career but could not ignore the hundreds of people lining up outside the consulate begging for visas. Even after he was forced to close the office and leave Lithuania, he continued signing the visas and throwing them out of the train window, finally tossing his visa stamp into the crowd.

As he had anticipated, he was disgraced for disobeying orders, and he and his family lived in poverty for many years. Only in 1968 were his noble deeds recognized and he became one of the Righteous among the Nations. In 1992 the villagers of Yoatsu built a memorial and museum to Sugihara, and we were able to pay our respects to this great man who died in 1986.

The visit was cut short by the need to get to the bullet train on time. Not surprisingly, the whole experience of the shinkansen is an object lesson in punctuality and good organization.

Places are assigned before boarding, and one stands on the platform at the spot where the doors will open to these exact seats. The ride, at 360 kilometers an hour, is so smooth that movement is barely perceptible.

The next day we visited the famous Golden Temple, the Nijo castle and then endured a long, drawn-out and soporific tea ceremony, which culminated in having to drink an unpleasantly frothy green liquid that we were assured had magical properties.

Perhaps the high point of our stay in Kyoto, even better than seeing many geishas made up in traditional white face and red lips walking off to their assignations, was a visit to Beth Shalom. If the experience of hearing about Sugihara was a moving one that induced tears for those long ago events, Beth Shalom is a place that chokes one emotionally for the here and now. Founded in 1938 by Father Takeji Otsuki, who had a vision of a Jewish state and encouraged his followers to support it, it is almost impossible to convey the feeling of watching a mixed choir of kimono-clad Japanese belting out “Hatikva,” smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts. Suffice it to say that I and many others in our group found it impossible to join in, as singing and a lump in the throat just don’t go together. To be loved, as Israelis, by a group of non-Jews whose every note is a declaration of their positive feelings toward us is as rare as it is moving.

Almost every week a group of visiting Israelis is treated to this wonderful choir singing Naomi Shemer songs, and travelling Israelis can stay, free of charge, at Beth Shalom for three days and are sure of a warm welcome. Among other activities of the 10,000-member group are a Holocaust Education Center and a Japanese Friends of the Hebrew University.

THERE WAS more wringing of the soul to come with our visit to Hiroshima. How is it possible to stay indifferent to the fate of the 70,000 innocents killed instantly as the atom bomb fell out of a clear sky that terrible morning in August 1945? Or the thousands who died later or were maimed for life? Or the children who seemed to have survived but a decade later developed leukemia and other horrible illnesses? Much discussion took place among our thoughtful group. Arguments were put forward, for and against. Millions of soldiers’ lives were saved, said some. They had it coming, said others.

It ended the war, said many.

From the total devastation, Hiroshima was rebuilt, with one or two relics of the horror that survived the blast left as they were on that fateful day. Today it is a city where the emphasis is on peace and reconciliation. Groups of schoolchildren look around the museum impassively, as though what happened to their grandparents’ generation has no relevance to them. We visit the cenotaph and the memorial to Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old girl who thought she could be cured if she folded 1,000 paper cranes but who died in 1955. We hang our joint effort up at the children’s peace memorial, among millions of others.

From Hiroshima we took a ferry to Miyajima Island, one of the most beautiful areas of Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and walked around the town where deer wander freely in the streets. We were impressed yet again with how none of the stall owners will ever employ a hard sell or pressure you to buy. A scary 15- minute cable car ride, which is euphemistically dubbed an “air walk,” takes you to the top of sacred Mount Misen, where the views of the surrounding lake are lovely beyond words.

For almost the grand finale, the last Shabbat was spent in the interesting community of Kobe, which has the only real Orthodox synagogue building in Japan. This was the place where Sugihara’s refugees and other escaping Jews found sanctuary. Today the community is mostly made up of Sephardim, many expatriate Israelis who are in business and, for the most part, have married local women. We even met an Israeli woman who has lived there for 20 years and is married to a Japanese man.

The spiritual needs of this very active community are taken care of by recently arrived from Tel Aviv Rabbi David Gingold and his young wife, Nily, who writes poetry and will happily sing to any attending women at some point in the long Shabbat. The hospitality is heart-warming, and hot meals are provided for travelers.

Japan is spotlessly clean and litter-free, the people are gentle and polite, and everything works like clockwork – in fact, the country is the antithesis of our little land. Having experienced Japan firsthand, our visit dispelled many stereotypes and preconceived ideas.

Related Content

Cookie Settings