Our experience was just one of many, and we do not claim that what we state here is the definitive experience of Judaism in Japan. However, we have tried to portray accurately what we found in order to give you an idea of what things will be like. We took a two-week holiday in Japan, spending most of the time in Tokyo and a few days in Kyoto during August.
Japan’s Jewish community is small but varied, and comprises a wide range of traditions and observances. Options for religious Jews in Tokyo is limited to the two Chabad houses, as the JCC is not orthodox. Rav Mendy and Chana Sudakevich and Rav Binyamin and Efrat Edery each run Chabad houses, which although an hour’s walk from each other, function as two entirely separate communities.
It can be confusing to navigate the two Chabad houses’ websites and piece together what Jewish provision there is, especially when Rav Mendy’s Chabad house is the only one listed on chabad.org and claims to be the ‘official’ Chabad on his website, whereas Rav Binyamin has the title of ‘Chief Rabbi of Japan’. Therefore, I have listed below a summary of each Chabad house and what they provide:
Rav Mendy & Chana
- Located in Minato near Sensakuji station.
- Listed on chabad.org and claims to be the official Chabad.
- As well as a shul, there is a mikveh on site and the ‘Chana’s Place’ restaurant open between 17.00-21.30 on weeknights.
Rav Binyamin & Efrat
- Located in Omori, around 10 minutes’ walk from Omori station.
- Openly messianic on the website and in the house (e.g. saying ‘Yechi’ after tefilla)
- They set up a second branch in Kyoto, which they are serving simultaneously, and currently are looking for shlichim to take it on full time.
- Used to run ‘King Falaffel’ website which has now closed down.
- Run the ‘Kosher Japan’ hechsher, which you can find on two brands of Sake and other items.
There is also a Sephardi synagogue in the city of Kobe, which is a 30-minute train ride from Kyoto. This community goes back many years and is the only regular functioning Orthodox community aside from Chabad. There is an apartment in the shul complex which you can stay in for a fee over Shabbat, and the Rabbi can arrange Shabbat hospitality. We considered going there for Shabbat, however we found the cost of travel to and from Tokyo to be very high and felt that as tourists Kobe did not justify a visit compared to other places.
Based on recommendations, we decided to spend both of our Shabbatot with Rav Binyamin and Efrat, one in Kyoto and one in Tokyo. While the messianism was uncomfortable, everything else about our experience was the exact opposite. We found a warm and hospitable family that create a wonderful Shabbat atmosphere and it was a real experience for tourists – and included great food. They aim to create a real connection with guests, and are very well liked by locals including non-Jewish visitors. We did not spend Shabbat with Rav Mendy and Chana, partly as they were away during our visit (and we have heard that they are often are away during Av), and their Chabad house was staffed by yeshiva bochurim in their absence.
Shabbat Accommodation in Tokyo
We stayed at the Omori Tokyu REI Hotel, which is one of Rav Binyamin’s list of recommended hotels (see their website). Apart from being a great hotel in general, including the advantage of being located in the Omori station complex which gave great accessibility to Tokyo, it was a very good place to be for Shabbat. We found the staff to be helpful, though with limited English and little familiarity with religious Jewish guests. However we didn’t need their help as keeping Shabbat is relatively straightforward there. The keys are all cylinder, and there is no electric key card entry. You can control all lights apart from the one closest to the door which turns on automatically upon entry (there is a way of solving this halachic problem). The highest floor is the 8th floor, which is relatively low for many hotels (we recommend asking for a 7th floor room as the lower ones are smoking rooms – and reception is on the 3rd floor). The toilet has an automatic heater, which you cannot turn off, however there are halachic solutions to this problem.
With regard to entering and exiting the hotel, this can be an issue. There are two entrances, one on the 3rd Floor by reception which adjoins the station and one on the 1st Floor through a coffee shop to the street. There are stairs to both of these floors however you must wait for someone to trigger the automatic doors in order to enter/exit. On the 3rd floor there are two sets of automatic doors before you get to the station, at which point you can walk to the street. On the 1st floor the door to the coffee shop is automatic, however there is a regular door that is sometimes in use if it is not blocked in. We also needed to check out on Shabbat, which was not a problem as you pay on arrival and we gave a suitcase of muktzeh items for them to look after from Friday, which they were happy to do.
Shabbat in Kyoto
We decided to stay at the Chabad house for Shabbat as there are a couple of guest rooms, so we are unable to recommend local hotels. There were around 50 people for Friday night and 30 on Shabbat lunch, comprising mainly of tourists plus a few locals who made the effort to attend Chabad Kyoto’s 1st Anniversary Shabbat, with which our visit coincided. The food was excellent, there were minyanim throughout Shabbat (partly due to the Shabbaton) and there was a great vibe, perfect for tourists who want an exotic and traditional Shabbat experience, and the ability to meet other people too.
The Chabad house is easy to find (the website has good directions to get there from Kyoto Central Station) and is located in a beautiful area of Kyoto (where isn’t?!). Examples of Shabbat-friendly activities in the area include: walking the ‘Philosopher’s Walk’ by the side of a canal, known as one of the most popular activities in the city; walking to the hub of museums and shrines to see the outdoor market and other cultural activities; seeing an interesting cemetery including a grave in the shape of a tortoise!
Shabbat in Tokyo
Our second Shabbat was spent with Rav Binyamin, and once again we ate all meals at Chabad. There were no minyanim on this particular Shabbat and a small group of tourists, however we got the impression that this was a quiet week. There is not a great deal to do in Omori other than see the architecture of the neighbourhood (there is a small museum and gardens near Chabad however they aren’t tourist sites).
As there are very limited kosher products in Japan we brought our own food from Israel, bought a cheap rice cooker and made our own meals. Rice from the supermarket is kosher and you can find the Kosher Japan hechsher on two brands of Sake (Dassai is the most common). There is one brand of sake that we found a KLBD hechsher on.
We went to Chana’s Place for dinner one night, which had nice food although it is more of a kitchen and a few tables than a fashionable restaurant. The menu resembles an Israeli meat restaurant (albeit with a smaller menu) and we felt the Japanese food options to be very expensive. My meal was nice, and the quantity of food was good.
One of the most popular attractions in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. We managed to find a seller in the outside market who only sells tuna, and we bought some sashimi (raw tuna), which was delicious. Most of the stalls sell kosher fish as well as sea food.
In the Hakone area, a popular tourist site with views of Mount Fuji, the area of Owakudani is well known for its unique black eggs. These are regular eggs that have blackened shells due to the volcanic gases in the area, and are a big tourist draw. Although not conclusive, it seemed that there is bishul akum involved in the making of these eggs and therefore we did not eat any.
Overall, it is certainly possible to have a successful holiday in Japan while keeping Shabbat and Kosher - and you'll have some Jewish experiences you won't be able to have anywhere else in the world!