There are a lot of reactions that happen when I tell people that I'm studying abroad in Japan. But the first question I usually get is, "what are you going to eat?"
It has almost been a full week since I got here. And although I've done all kinds of fun stuff since I got here, I'm saving that stuff for my next post. If you really want to read about someone's food adventures or night life activities, read someone else's blog for now. Right now, I'm going to be talking about Jewish stuff.
Part of the reason why I signed up to make a blog, you see, was because I had a very hard time finding resources regarding how to be Jewish in Japan, or anything on how people overcame those challenges here. Don't worry, most of my blog posts are going to be normal, but this one, and several of my future ones as well, will be dedicated to the religious challenges that I faced here.
Things you will need:
- Enough food from home to last a few days
- Memorize the route from your dorm to wherever you're going to daven
Japanese skills you will need:
- How to explain that you can't use electronics on shabbat
- How to ask for directions
What I am going to eat
The first problem I ran into was kosher food. Japan has effectively zero certified kosher food, though occasionally you can find it in places where they import goods from the US, such as Costco. So until I could get a place to cook, I would be in a bit of a pickle.
For the orientation process, the program put us in a hotel for the first few days of orientation before we were able to move to our residence—an apartment building, in my case. Due to the fact that it is culturally inappropriate to carry large amounts of baggage on public transportation, we were only allowed to take our carry-on bag with us to the hotel; our other luggage was delivered to the apartment through a luggage delivery service. So, I needed to have all of the food I needed in my carry-on.
Fortunately, as in the US, plain milk in Japan is kosher even if it doesn't have a hechsher (kosher certification mark), so I decided to bring some cereal with me and get some milk to eat it with one I came to Japan. I brought 2 boxes of oatmeal squares, since they're a very filling cereal, and a bunch of bars I got at Costco in case I wanted a snack.
Additionally, we were given vouchers for the hotel's breakfast buffet, which thankfully included a salad bar. So for breakfast, I was able to conserve my cereal and eat from the salad bar instead.
Preparing for shabbat
We may have landed on Tuesday, but I knew I had no time to waste in preparing for shabbat, especially since we were going to spend the better half of Friday moving into the apartments. I would need to get all the supplies I needed for shabbat as soon as I could. Rabbi Andrew Scheer, the head of the Jewish Community Center in Japan, informed me that essentials such as kosher wine and challah could be purchased at Chabad, so I went there on Wednesday afternoon to go get some.
There are two Chabad houses in Tokyo. One is called Chabad of Tokyo, Japan, and the other is called Chabad of Japan, Tokyo, which is extremely confusing. I will instead refer to them by the names of the families who run them—the Edery family and the Sudakevich family. I went to the Sudakevich Chabad, which was a good hour and a half trip each way from the hotel by subway.
They had a whole bookshelf of imported kosher goods available for purchase, and for very reasonable prices too. Downstairs, they even had a sort of sit-down kosher restaurant situation happening as well, which I did notice on their website, but didn't expect to actually be operating.
I bought a bottle of kosher wine and a box of 30 matzot for ¥900 each for a total of ¥1800 (about $13 USD)— almost as cheap as my transportation fee.
With my wine and matzah acquired, as well as a plastic cup and corkscrew I found for cheap at a store called Seria, I was now ready for shabbat. However, on Friday, I ran into a new problem.
A new problem
The apartment building we moved into is owned by a very sweet couple. Although the rooms themselves had physical keys, they explained to us, an electronic key fob is required to get into or out of the building. This system is apparently in place so that the computer can automatically track who is and isn't around at any given time. Obviously, this posed a problem for me, since I would be unable to use the key fob.
I met with the couple on Friday afternoon and explained my situation to them. They only speak Japanese, but I was still able to get my point across, and it took much less explaining than I thought. They were both very cooperative. Since at least one of them is around in the booth near the entrance from 9-5 every day, we agreed on a system where they would open the automatic door for me if they saw me near the entrance so that I would be able to enter and exit the building on shabbat.
If IES Abroad uses this building for its program every year, then hopefully the next shomer shabbat student to come will not need to explain as much as I did, now that the landlords have actually encountered a shomer shabbat yid and are familiar with our situation.
In the end, this was my setup by the time shabbat came around.
By sunset, I was all ready to welcome shabbat.
For kabalat shabbat, I went to the highest floor so that I could have a great view of the setting sun as I davened. I really enjoyed singing the tunes to myself, albeit quietly enough as to not disturb any of the other residents.
After I finished, I brought all my food downstairs to have dinner. The apartment complex has a large communal eating area that is connected to the communal kitchen. I really didn't want to spend my shabbat dinner alone in my room, so I brought everything down there in case anyone else popped by.
Fortunately, during my meal, some newly-met friends of mine dropped by with ready-made meals they bought from a local konbini, so I was able to enjoy some company in the end.
Originally, I was planning on just sleeping in, reading a book, and maybe taking a walk on shabbat. However, my master plan was utterly ruined by the fact that I woke up at 7:00am and couldn't fall back asleep. In order to avoid boredom, I decided to walk to the Jewish center.
The Jewish center is located in Minato, a subcity in the western part of Tokyo. It is a 4 hour walk from my apartment in Urayasu. The weather was above 30° C, and very humid. And I would be unable to carry any food or water with me. So, I ate some oatmeal squares for breakfast and chugged down a bottle of water like it was erev Yom Kippur, and took off.
I had memorized the route a few weeks earlier by going onto Google street view and simulating the "walk."
Although public water fountains seem to be rather rare in Japan, I managed to find a few on my route, which really helped me out.
However, I got lost trying to get from Showa-dori to Roppongi avenue. It ended up taking me closer to 5.5 hours instead of just 4, but I got there in the end.
I spent the rest of my shabbat at the Jewish center. When I arrived, there was kiddush happening, so I got to make kiddush and have some food. Then, I got to chat with Rabbi Scheer and the other people - some of whom were regulars, and some of whom were just in Japan for the weekend. It was very interesting to see what kind of Jews end up in a place like this.
After that, I read a book from the library at the Jewish center and took a little nap. Once shabbat ended, Rabbi Scheer invited me for havdalah, and then was kind enough to let me borrow some cash so I could take the subway home, which I venmoed him in return.
Important note: The Jewish center is only open every other shabbat. I made sure it was open on the day I visited, and so should you if you ever plan to go there.
TLDR: Yes, shabbat is doable here
More than doable, I'd say. I was able to enjoy a nice, full shabbat with zero time to cook and limited time to prepare. As for the high holidays? We'll see how they go...
Stay tuned to find out.
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Hey, my name is Zev. I'm a current senior at Brandeis University from Oakland, California. This fall, I'll be spending a semester in Japan! I love drawing, playing games, web development, skiing, singing, and learning languages.