Sukkot – A Welcome Break

The main mitzvah of Sukkot is the Sukkah, the temporary dwelling we construct as autumn is upon us (in the northern hemisphere). Most people use the Sukkah only for meals, but many fulfill the mitzvah to its fullest and also sleep in it.

Sukkot has dozens of specific halachot (religious laws). But if we step back for a moment and observe the Sukkah and what it symbolizes, perhaps there are few things we can learn that go beyond the particular fulfillment of specific laws.

The Sukkah is typically built from cheap materials: wood and/or cloth for the walls and tree leaves or branches for the roof. It is a temporary structure, but one that is our home for a week. Most of us spend our lives striving for bigger and more lavish houses to live in, but the Sukkah teaches us that we can make do with a very basic home. What is truly important about our home is not the walls or the roof, it is what is inside the house: us and our families and what we make of our homes. The Sukkah helps us realize the value of family and forget, if only for a week, about the external aspects of our home.

The Sukkah is built outside, and its incomplete roof enables us to see the sky. We are forced to pay attention to the weather and to nature, as our well-being in the Sukkah is directly affected by them. The artificial houses we live in – with insulation, air conditioning, electricity, etc. – have distanced us from nature. The Sukkah gives us the opportunity to reconnect with nature, to truly feel the weather, to witness sunrises and sunsets and to realize that we are part of nature.

But although we live outside, the Sukkah still has walls. They are imperfect walls, typically made of cloth, but walls nonetheless. This teaches us that no matter what, we need to establish barriers between ourselves and the external world. We need to find the correct balance between openness and isolation, to take what is good from the world but also be careful about what to keep out.

Finally, one of the important features of the Sukkah roof is that it must be more covered than open (casting more shade than letting in light). This teaches us that the things that are visibly clear to us are not necessarily the entire story. There are layers and meanings that are, so to speak, in the shade. That are not visible to us. We need to strive to uncover these layers, wherever they might occur in our lives: family, friends, strangers. There are people that need help to come out from the shade, and our job is to lend a helping hand when we can.

May the festival of Sukkot help us learn these lessons and hopefully implement them in our lives, even long after the Sukkah is dismantled and we return to our brick-and-mortar houses.

(The  idea for this Thought is from Rabbi Yoni Lavi)

Pipe Cleaning

This is a picture I took near the urinals in my office:


The building’s service center is notifying everyone that they will be doing pipe cleaning work lasting two weeks. Employees are advised to use the regular toilets instead of the urinals during this period. The interesting part is that the work is being conducted between 10pm and 6am.

The chances of anyone using the toilets in this office building during these hours is virtually zero. And that’s the point. The work is being conducted at night in order to minimize discomfort to employees. This is true in many cases in Japan, including roadwork, train station work, etc. Utmost care is taken not to disturb people.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Airport Luggage Handler

Travelling often for work, I am very familiar with luggage handling at airports. On at least five occasions my luggage arrived damaged to a degree that I had to get it repaired or replaced. On countless other occasions it arrived scratched or slightly damaged. One time, contents from my suitcase were missing.

Several videos circulating on the Web provide an explanation for this state of affairs. Luggage handlers around the world are not known for being delicate and caring in their work. This is of course a generalization, but one that has some merit. Here’s a compilation video of such handlers, and of course there’s the famous United Breaks Guitars incident.

Luggage handlers in Japan seem to be of a different kind. I have never had issues in Japan and on the one occasion that my luggage arrived damaged, the airline ground employees were quick to assign the blame to my connection in a European airport, stating they are very careful with luggage handling (they sent me a new suitcase a couple of days later, with an apology letter).

Recently an acquaintance of mine posted the f0llowing video on Facebook, showing another unique aspect to luggage handling at Narita airport in Tokyo. An employee stands at the luggage carousel and makes sure the luggage lands safely and is positioned for easy retrieval by the passengers. He also adjusts the luggage tags so that they are easy to read:

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Jewish Cemetery, Kobe, Japan

Earlier today I joined a few members of our community to visit the local Jewish cemetery in Kobe, Japan. A long-time member of the community, Jack Yohai z”l, who passed away two years ago (on Rosh HaShana) has no family in Japan, so we went to say a memorial prayer and kaddish on his grave.



Grave of Jack Yohai z”l


The Japanese do not bury their dead and the cremation rate here is more than 99%. When a Jew dies in Japan, it is always a bit of challenge to race to get the proper official documentation signed before the body is cremated.

The Jewish cemetery in Kobe is located on Futatabi mountain. In the 1950s, the Kobe City government relocated all foreign cemeteries within the city to this location, and designated it as the Kobe Municipal Foreign Cemetery. It is located in a beautiful woodland park, a hiking and camping site, and is maintained meticulously year round. There are designated plots for Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions.

There are two Jewish plots in this cemetery. The older one probably filled up, so a new one was allocated further up the hill. The names on the tombstones clearly reflect the changing composition of the Jewish community of Kobe. While in the old plot most names are Ashkenazi (Russian or European), in the new plot most names are Mizrachi (from Arab countries). The people buried in the old plot came to Japan in the 19th century and, judging by the dates on the tombstones, most of them died in the early 20th century at a relatively young age (40s and 50s). The ones buried in the new plot arrived here in the early 1900s and most of them died at an old age.


The new Jewish plot at Futatabi cemetery

There are three “major” Jewish cemeteries in Japan, in the three port cities where foreigners typically lived: Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. In addition, there are Jews buried in various general foreign cemeteries, especially those set up after the wars to bury the dead foreign soldiers and POWs. An acquaintance of mine recently found a few Jewish graves at a POW cemetery near his home in Osaka, dating back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.

May the memories of these Jews buried in Japan be a blessing to us all. Amen.

Personal Touch at Starbucks

We have a Starbucks near our home, which our daughter frequents regularly. During the summer holidays she was away from Japan for a few weeks, and on a couple of occasions when I went there for coffee, I was asked by the staff when she would be coming back.

A few days ago my wife went there and, along with her beverage, was given the following note:


The Japanese says they are thankful for our business and urge our daughter to practice her Japanese with them.

A personal touch that is not uncommon in Japan. A few months ago I wrote about another Starbucks employee who was particularly attentive to one of his customers.

What a far cry from the apathetic, sometimes even surly, Starbucks employees I encounter during my trips to the US. But then again, I’m not as cute and friendly as our daughter…

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Post Office

This is a post office near my home. Not the one I use regularly, but close enough that I can use it as well sometimes (it’s close to the supermarket I go to). That’s point number one: there are many post offices in Japan, so you rarely need to walk far to get to one.


My usage of the post office is mostly for sending registered mail to Tokyo. I go there 2-3 times a month for this purpose. The post office is open all day, every day. In the two years I’ve lived here, only once did I need to wait in line to get served, and the line consisted of one person. Point number two: the post office is always open, and one rarely needs to wait in line.

Why don’t I go to the post office for other purposes? Because there is no need to. All mail and parcels are delivered to my home, regardless of size (from regular envelopes to oversized boxes). Furthermore, if I’m not home, a note is left in the mailbox and I can reschedule the delivery to any time I like, including late evening. Point number three: there is no need to go to the post office to collect anything as everything gets delivered to you personally at home.

Recently, I saw the following post in Facebook:

The Story of 38 yen
Last week I went to a Post office that I rarely go to and bought some envelopes to send a package overseas but I forgot to take my change (38yen). That evening the Post office called my home to let me know that they had my change and they would keep it for me until I picked it up. How did they find me? From the return address on the package I had sent! Today (almost a week after sending the letter) I went back to that Post office and retrieved my change. The very kind woman behind the counter immediately retrieved my change from an envelope they had stored in the back office and apologized for causing me trouble and bothering me at home.
All for 38 yen.
I continue to be humbled by the service levels in Japan, and from the Post Office no less.

By the way. The registered mail I send to Tokyo, 500km away, unfailingly gets there in 1-2 days. Israeli readers can compare that with this recent test done with Israel Postal Service.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Installing an Air Conditioner

A couple of weeks ago, one of the air conditioners in our home decided to meet its maker. The landlord came over, took a look, and decided to replace it. This being a very hot summer in Japan, the installers were fully booked, so we had to wait a couple of weeks. The landlord left a note on our door noting the date and time the installers will come, and providing an estimated work time of 4-5 hours.

On the date, at the exact time scheduled, the installers showed up. Before doing anything, they taped plastic sheets on the floor and walls to avoid getting anything dirty. Needless to say, they removed their shoes every time they entered the apartment.

To access the main electric panel they needed to remove five shelves of shoes. First they took pictures of the shelves. Why? So that they would know how to put the shoes back exactly as they were. They then proceeded to place the shoes in two neat rows outside the front door. And only then did they start working. I brought them a bottle of cold water and some cups.

During the time the installers were in the apartment, I was working in another room. I told them I would be on a couple of conference calls so I would need to shut the door. They immediately asked if I would like them to stop working during my calls, so as not to make any noise. I said “no problem”, and in fact there was very little noise.

They were done in 2.5 hours. They removed the plastic sheets, put back the shelves and the shoes, showed me how the remote control worked, bowed, and left. The bottle of water remained untouched. Not a speck of dust was left behind.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Tax Office

I had to go to the tax office today to get some document. I put this chore off for a while, as the form I needed to fill out was in Japanese only, and based on previous experiences I was afraid this wasn’t going to go smoothly. I was wrong.

First, this is the line I had to wait in to get service:

That’s right, no line. I thought maybe I was lucky, but when I asked, the lady at reception told me they have a policy of minimum wait in line, so when there is more than 1 person waiting, they call staff from the back office to help. Reception is open every day, 9 to 5, no breaks. By the way, it’s hard to see in the photos, but there were pens and reading glasses available for the public to use, neatly arranged and not attached to anything.

The receptionist did not speak much English, so she fetched a young guy who did. He helped me fill out the form, and then asked whether I’d like to get it by mail, or wait 15 minutes. I said I would wait. It took 20 minutes, but on the 15-minute mark he came out to apologize for it taking longer than expected. When he approached me I was sitting on a chair, so he knelt on one knee to be at the same eye level when addressing me.

When I got the document I was surprised to see it was translated to English. I asked why, and he said: you’re a foreigner, so we help you by translating the fields for you. This is why it took longer… I was asked to pay 400 yen (4 US dollars) and left.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Magical Art Museum, Tokyo

The Sompo Japan museum in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is running a temporary exhibition called “Magical Art Museum – Illusion of Light and Shadow”.

This is not a standard museum exhibition. It involves active participation of the visitors, who interact with the “media art” works on display, thereby changing them. The interaction produces new lights, colors, sounds and movements.

It’s not a big exhibition, and can be completed leisurely in 1 hour. Perfect for a quick break during a word day if you’re in the Shinjuku area. But it runs until August 28, so hurry up…



Public Toilets

Public toilets in Japan are available almost anywhere: inside convenience stores (one on every corner), on train/subway platforms and in public parks. If you feel the need to go, you are rarely more than a couple of minutes away from a public toilet.

More importantly, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, these public facilities are impeccably clean. They are cleaned regularly and, crucially, customers generally do a good job in keeping them clean. (Incidentally, most of the cleaning staff are women, and they clean the toilets while you’re standing there doing your thing; a little unsettling for some foreign tourists).

Here’s an example. I was visiting Kanazawa last week, and entered a public toilet in a small park. This is what the toilet looked like. Note the cleanliness, the availability of toilet paper, the facilities for disabled people, the diaper changing area… And all of this in a touristy area, i.e. with lots of customers.


(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)