When traveling abroad, I am often disappointed to visit cities that are saturated with American culture; I leave the US to see something different. This summer I went to Japan, the most contemporary city on the planet, yet one that still features a unique, traditional way of life.
I traveled there with two of my teenagers and my husband for work. Despite my travel experience, I was a little nervous. The Japanese language is, well, Japanese, and I recalled my trip to China, where no one outside the hotels spoke a word of English.
Nearly everyone we encountered spoke some English, and the Japanese people are warm and generous, so we had no trouble finding help when we needed it. We felt safe everywhere; even when we were completely lost, I knew we would be okay.
Although Tokyo is full of outlets of every American clothing and food chain, Japanese culture is pervasive. Even in western hotels, everyone bowed to us. On the streets you see women in kimonos and men in yakuta (traditional robes). Today people still eat traditional Japanese food of multiple bowls of fish, vegetables, tofu, rice, miso and pickles. I wondered how the women have time to work if they wash 40 little bowls and plates after one meal—and repeat it at the next meal.
Tokyo is the cleanest city I have ever visited, and Japanese bathrooms feature music-playing toilets with sprays, bidets and dryers. We visited the Tokyo National Museum, Meiji and Akasuka shrines and the Imperial Palace gardens. We explored the Harajuku and Ginza neighborhoods, art museums and attended Kabuki theater. My teens and I especially enjoyed seeing the wild and overpriced Japanese teen fashion.
The bullet train took us to Kyoto for two nights where we stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, sleeping on futons on tatami mats and eating the traditional Japanese breakfast. We saw geishas and took a rickshaw ride. From Kyoto we went to the ancient city of Nara and visited shrines, pagodas and stunning gardens with a detour to the Horyugi temple, the oldest existing wooden building in the world.
We carried a printout from the Tokyo JCC that explained our dietary restrictions in Japanese, and precisely the types of fish we could and couldn’t eat. Fortunately, Japanese people love raw tuna and salmon as much as we do. The best meal was a breakfast near the Tsukiji Fish Market of bowls of rice topped with slabs of fresh salmon and small pieces of raw tuna scraped off the tuna bones.
At restaurants we handed the sheet to the host or chef and usually they would invite us in and help us navigate the menu. At one place in Kyoto, after reviewing the sheet for nearly 10 minutes, the chef said “No” and ushered us out. We found a nearby restaurant with a vegetarian menu. In most restaurants we sat at low tables or on cushions right on the floor. Some of our meals were shared with local Japanese families that my husband knew through work.
Visiting the local Chabad for Shabbat dinner, we met an international crowd of Americans, Israelis and Japanese. It is special to be on the opposite side of the world and sing the Kabbalat Shabbat tunes we sing at home. With no access to kosher meat, the main course was cooked fish served with Israeli salads, kugel and rice. The rabbi’s wife, Chana, served a great challah.
Japanese desserts were often very strange, brightly colored and made with rice flour. The Japanese like jelly desserts that looked to us like Nickelodeon slime. There is a green tea version of nearly every dessert: cheesecake, croissants, chocolates and even bagels. I did not, however, find green tea hamantashen, which are, in fact, featured in my cookbook, The Holiday Kosher Baker.
Japan should be on everyone’s bucket list as it is safe, easy to navigate, beautiful, fascinating, has delicious food, and the experience is entirely Japanese.