February 20, 2003
Land of the Rising Fun
A visit to Japan can be an exotic-yet-familiar journey for Jews.
Welcome to Japan -- land of the electric toilet, video game and bullet train. The offices are full of people working at 8 p.m. on Friday, where minivan-driving moms find their way with electronic mapping systems glowing on the dashboard. After the hundreds of years of sprawl that created modern Tokyo, even cabbies often can't find an address. With less than 5,000 Jewish residents, Japan certainly is not a Jewish country. Yet, Japan is a special destination for the Jewish traveler, at once safe and familiar, exotic and different.
What Price Japan?
Japan has been an infrequent travel destination for American tourists, because of distance and cost. But while your flight to Narita, Tokyo's airport, will still take around 14 hours from Los Angeles, you'll find that the price of travel has dropped significantly, as the value of the yen to the dollar has slipped.
Japan has been going through its own economic crisis, which for the Western tourist has served to bring down the cost of travel. When I first went to Japan in 1994, a U.S. dollar bought only 98 yen, leaving my electronics-crazed friends empty-handed shopping in Akhihabara, Japan's famed electronics district. But as of February 2003, the dollar bought 118 Japanese yen.
Even so, "It's so expensive," you may say over and over again, in the land of the $8 beer and $3 coffee. But while Japan will never be a cheap destination, you'll see the difference in more reasonably priced hotel rooms, airfares and your spending.
Jews in Japan
If one discards the theory held by some that the Japanese are actually a lost tribe of Israel, Jewish traders arrived a few years after Commodore Perry "opened" Japan to foreign trade, and built communities in Nagasaki, Kobe and Tokyo. Little remains of the community in Nagasaki founded by Russian Jews, while Synagogue Oshel Shelohoh and a mountaintop Jewish cemetery mark the community in Kobe, in prosperous Western Japan.
An American Jew, Jacob Schiff, was a hero for helping the Japanese modernize their military in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Schiff, repelled by the pogroms of Czarist Russia, helped the Japanese gain financing and was invited to lunch by Emperor Meiji.
During World War II, more than 20,000 Jews reached Japan and Japanese-occupied Shanghai and were protected from Hitler's Final Solution, most famously by Senpo Sugihara, Japan's consul general in Kovno, Lithuania.
In 1941, against orders from the foreign ministry, Sugihara issued more than 5,000 Japanese transit visas to Jews who had fled to Lithuania a few steps ahead of the Germans. Among those who arrived in Japan with Sugihara visas was the entire Mir Yeshiva, the only Eastern European yeshiva to survive the war intact.
Jewish Life Today
Today, the center of Jewish life in Japan is in Tokyo, at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), which holds services in Hebrew and English on Friday night and Saturdays. Women and men are divided by a mechitza, but the Center is neither Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, instead serving Jews of "all shades of belief." Half the members are American, one-third Israeli, and the rest from many other nationalities. The JCC is a very welcoming place, and I witnessed a British Jew who had wandered away from Judaism moved to tears when he was given an aliyah to the Torah. It's fascinating to be invited to join the "Kiddush" after Shabbat services on Saturday, and meet Jews from all over the world -- including Japanese Jews.
The JCC also gives out information on keeping kashrut in Japan, which is difficult -- but possible -- depending on your level of observance. If you want to try your luck, you can find kosher raw fish at sushi restaurants -- make sure to avoid anything with suckers on it. The JCC provides a "fish list" of kosher and nonkosher fish -- you can eat maguro (tuna), but you'll have to eschew najira (whale). Some Western-oriented supermarkets carry canned goods from the United States with the U or K symbols, while some restaurants specialize in strictly vegetarian Buddhist cuisine.
Even with almost 30 million people living in greater Tokyo, Japan is a very safe country. Tokyo itself is a study in contrasts. The Tokyo subway system, for example, will be a revelation to freeway-trapped L.A. drivers, as it's clean, efficient, inexpensive and easy to figure out. In general, the Japanese are polite, helpful and accommodating. Many speak English, and on the street they'll go out of their way to direct you, even if their directions are wrong. On the other hand, Tokyo cabbies typically don't speak English, and cab meters start ticking at $6.
For longer trips, say from Tokyo to Osaka, Kobe (the ancient capital of Kyoto) or to Hiroshima, the shinkansen (bullet train), is the way to go.
What to See in Tokyo
A great place to go the day of your arrival in Tokyo when you're still jet-lagged is the sprawling Tsujuki fish market. It opens at 5:30 a.m., and you'll find seemingly every fish in the world there, from frozen tuna taken deep at sea to shellfish, eel and even whale. Having sushi for breakfast at one of the nearby small shops, armed with your transliterated list of kosher fish, is a real treat.
Japan is a shopper's paradise, from the cooking supplies on the streets around Tsujuki to the giant department stores in the Ginza and Shibuya. The courteous service and beautiful wrapping of the department stores will indeed seem a world away from Los Angeles. The males in your group will gravitate more toward Akhibara, where you'll find the latest in digital cameras, CD and MP3 players, and the like. However, you may well come away empty-handed -- prices in America are often much less expensive. For gifts for the kids, there's even a seven-story toy store with a floor full of trains, another full of action figures, a third full of models and robots and so on.
A must to visit is Ueno Park, a large park for strolling, people watching, visiting the shrines, watching boaters or visiting the many museums in the park. Particularly noteworthy is the Tokyo Museum, which contains thousands of pieces of art, samurai armor, lacquerware, kimonos, woodblock prints and other cultural assets. Ueno also contains the Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple, built in 1631, and the Toshogu Shrine, built in 1651. The path to the shrine is lined with large stone lanterns donated by feudal lords. In today's Ueno Park, you can also watch Japanese teenagers dressed in the latest, most outrageous styles.
For nightlife, there's Roppongi, demimonde of the illegal foreigner. (Japan has very strict immigration laws.) You can visit hostess bars, and drink and dance the night away in this clubber's paradise.
Perhaps the most important must-see sight in Japan is Kyoto, two hours and 40 minutes west of Tokyo by bullet train. The ancient capital, untouched by U.S. bombers in World War II, is filled with cultural treasures and temples. Among the key sights are Nijo Castle (residence of the shoguns) and the Buddhist temples of Kiyomizu and Daitokuji. Particularly impressive is the "nightingale floor" of the Nijo Castle, essentially an early burglar alarm. The shoguns built the floor to squeak or "sing" like a nightingale, so not even the stealthiest ninja could slip in to assassinate them.
Five hours from Tokyo is Hiroshima. There's nothing "Jewish" about Hiroshima -- except everything. Although the city has been completely rebuilt, key relics, like the Atomic Bomb Dome, still stand marking the geographical center of the town. The Peace Memorial Park and Museum is a must-see, with moving memorials to the thousands killed by the bomb. A memorial flame burns in Hiroshima, but it's not a perpetual flame; it will be put out when the last atomic weapon in the world is destroyed.
Michael Goldstein is an Encino-based journalist, screenwriter and media trainer.