Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ameriki oveid ani

This past Shabbat, the Tokyo Jewish Community Center was not serving any meals, as they are in transition to their new building. So, I decided to check out the Chabad house (the mainstream one, not the messianic one), which is a bit less than a 3 mile walk from my apartment.

Now, Tokyo does not have an eruv, meaning that, not only cannot not use my cell phone / GPS-enabled Blackberry, but I cannot even carry a map or a piece of paper with the address on it. My only option is to memorize the directions, and hope I can follow them, and then hope I can retrace my steps, in a country where I can't even read the few street signs that exist.

For this kind of endeavor, Google Maps and street view is invaluable. It not only helps you to plot a route, but it actually allows you "walk" the route, with an arrow guiding you down Google Street View, allowing you to mentally record landmarks near turns, and what your destination looks like.

Walking to dinner, I was perhaps the most alert that I have ever been. I knew that I needed to take in and retain all of my surroundings, all the while keeping the picture of my map in my head and charting my progress along my route.

Arrival for Shabbat dinner was not too difficult, as I knew the Chabad house was near a certain supermarket chain, and once I got close enough I could find the supermarket. Beyond that, I asked a Japanese woman where "Jews" or "Rabbi Mendi" was, and she told me how to go to the last few blocks.

Going home was supposed to be easier, since if I got lost, I could just ask for directions to my regular subway stop which is a few minutes from my apartment. I was a bit more cavalier, and so overshot a turn, and wound up in an area I recognized as I had visited 2 weeks ago, but was no where near my apartment.

Several more kind Japanese people got me to the Shibuya stop, only a few stops from mine. Now, throughout the walk I had noticed the lovely Japanese women, many of whom are quite striking. There's a part of every man that wants, just once, for one of them to turn and hit on you, for a change. However, in the Shibuya area (which did not look particularly seedy at all), two lovely women, one right after the other, smiled, said hello, and twirled some keys around their finger. I immediately realized that I was being solicited by prostitutes, a first for me, and certainly was no where near as skeezy as I imagined it would be. Nevertheless, in both cases I shock my head and kept walking.

Shortly after this, I heard someone say "Oh my God!" behind me, which was the first English I had overheard on my entire walk. I turned, and a lovely girl said, "A Jew! I'm Jewish and I haven't met any Jews." While I haven't been wearing a kippa at the client during the week, I was wearing my white Shabbat kippa. (Also, despite the way this seems, she was not as far I know a prostitute.) It turns out she's a half-Japanese, half-Jew from north London (she was very impressed that I had heard of Golder's Green and Finchley). She asked about Jewish institutions in Tokyo, and I politely made a few suggestions.

Eventually, after getting lost a few more times, I did make it home, albeit 2.5 hours after I left the Chabad house (on what should have been an hour walk). For lunch the next day, I made it there and back with only minor deviations, as I was able to realize rather quickly when I made a wrong turn.

The moral of this story is that it is actually an amazing experience to get lost in a foreign city without money, ID, cell phone, or map, and actually be able to find your way home by politely asking for directions. I highly recommend it.

(By the way, the title of this blog means "I was a wandering American," and is a pun on the classic Passover seder line that comes from this past Shabbat's parshat (portion), "Arami oveid avi" or "My father was a wandering Aramean" - see Deuteronomy 26:5)

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