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This Night was Different! Spending Seder in Japan

Pamela enjoying a Japanese delicacy . . . locally-gathered wild vegetables. She says she was wearing both the kimono and the yakuta because she was freezing!   Photos by Pamela Levene

As a teenager I had many pen-friends. Amongst the exotic postcards they sent me was one featuring Mount Fuji, complete with flowering cherry trees. Although I always dreamed of one day visiting Japan, I never really thought it would happen. Last year, some 45 years after I received that still treasured postcard, I decided the time was right. As my meagre savings were not going to "save" me for long in a real financial crisis, I might just as well spend them!

For me, there was no question of when I would go to Japan: it had to be cherry blossom time. I looked for a tour. Translating the brochure from Hebrew into English left enormous gaps in my knowledge of what we would be seeing, but to be honest I didn't care. They certainly offered a comprehensive tour of the most popular tourist sites. In two weeks we would cover large distances and even stay in obscure places (including an overnight with the locals) - something I would never manage on my own.

The tour booked, I then added two weeks to my trip so that, with the must-see sites taken care of, I could relax and experience on my own a little of the "real" Japan. 

Before the seder began ... two families, both with an Israeli father and a Japanese mum

As my free time would include Pesach, the first thing I needed was a seder. Kobe had a Jewish community, so it made sense to head there first. With two days to settle in and explore Kobe before seder night, I contacted the shul and booked both nights.

After Kobe I would spend six nights in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan with its glorious temples and gardens, and the home of the geiko (geisha) phenomenon. To finish, I would have three nights in Osaka. Trusting that the reasonably priced self-catering accommodations bore some resemblance to the pictures on the net, I made my bookings. For the record, Kobe was fine, Osaka was adequate and Kyoto was the highlight of my personal tour, where I stayed in an old Japanese mashiya house (think "Memoirs of a Geisha"). It was a bit ramshackle but quite lovely and sleeping on a futon was just one of the many experiences it offered. A deep cast iron tub which you sit in with your knees touching your chest was another! It was surprisingly comfortable, though getting in and out proved to be a little tricky.

Then I read up on Japan. YouTube videos were a great help in familiarizing myself with places and customs, though those teaching rudiments of the language failed to teach me anything (my fault, not theirs; brain cells not what they used to be!) and I concluded that I would have to rely on English being a universal language. Such blithe optimism.

Suppressing a feeling of panic at seeing my group disappear at the end of our tour, I took a train from Osaka to Kobe, activating my travel pass for the Japan Railways (for foreigners and only purchasable prior to arriving in Japan). I had yet to see a European face and it turned out to be true what they say - hardly anyone in Japan speaks English. But their overwhelming politeness and helpfulness somehow overcame all the language barriers, and my suitcase and I made it to our first destination.

Kobe turned out to be an attractive city climbing up from the sea to the mountain that towered over the bay. I was delighted to discover that I was staying within walking distance of the shul – although it was perched halfway up the mountain whilst I was staying at the bottom!

The Kobe community had survived for many years without a rabbi, but as luck would have it, a newly appointed Chabad Rabbi had arrived just in time for Pesach. He and his wife and young children were welcoming and very laid back. They would need to be. It turned out that the community was almost exclusively made up of mixed couples, one Israeli, one Japanese and their offspring. I was not surprised to find Israeli men married to Japanese ladies; however independent and career oriented Japanese women are, when it comes to the home many are, even today, totally subservient to the male partner. However, there were an almost equal number of Japanese men married to feisty Israeli ladies! So much for stereotyping.

The cook/organizer for the seders was one of the Japanese husbands who spoke excellent Hebrew. Naively, I was hoping for the famous Kobe (Wagyu) beef on seder night. Of course we had the ubiquitous chicken soup and chicken. Still, after two weeks without meat (I was on an Israeli but not kosher tour) it tasted delicious.

I found the first night of the seder rather impersonal. There were many people like myself who were on holiday and the large hall was very crowded. The seder was conducted, as I suppose all communal seders must be, in a rather bland way. It followed a familiar pattern (no surprise really when you think what the word seder means). It was made extra long by the idea that someone should translate everything into English. This was the one time in my visit to Japan that I would have happily forgone that convenience!

However, the second night proved more interesting. I was virtually the only visitor, and the numbers had shrunk to a mere 50 or so locals, who were more than happy to chat with me. As with so many seders that I have been to over the years, the food and general conversation were equally as important as the prayers!

I had noticed a Japanese woman dressed like a "datia" and on this second night, the community united in wishing her, her Israeli husband and their four beautiful and delightful children well. It emerged that the family would be moving to Israel that very week (to Rosh Ha'ayin, no less).

I had expected that my visit to Japan would be my first and last, but something about the country got under my skin, and at the end of this year I will be returning to view the autumn foliage. If it is even a tenth as beautiful as the cherry blossom I will be satisfied.

Next time there will be no organized tour, just me on my own. For the first week I will stay in Tokyo (before returning to my mashiya in Kyoto for another two weeks), so perhaps I will be able to report back to you on the Jewish community there. In Kyoto, I plan to revisit Makuya, a pro-Israel Christian group (and hopefully get a clearer photo). Every year three groups consisting of 50-70 Japanese youth spend time on a kibbutz.

See also: 

                                          I think I'm turning Japanese: How to put on a kimono 


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Friday, 17 September 2021

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