Self-Portrait of the Author

1415162_174675689399826_544137077_oToday September 28th is an anniversary. Today marks completion of 29 always surreal years in Japan. I’ve now lived here more than half of my life but time operates at such an accelerated pace in this city of 35 million souls that I feel sometimes as if I’ve been here lifetimes.

It’s a fact that still hasn’t sunk in, that I’m a permanent resident but not a citizen of a country that will have me but won’t count me in their elections, or let me scoot through the express lane at Passport Control at Narita Airport along with my Japanese spouse, and finger prints me, and takes a photo of my unsmiling jet-lagged kao.

Being an outsider defines my role as a lifelong reporter, commentator and illustrator of this wild and whacky experience of being permanently defined by my blue eyes, big shnoz, and any hat that I can find to serve as a quasi-shetl. If and when I become Orthodox I don’t know. Maybe it will happen in another life.

When I started becoming Torah observant about 15 years ago, I did so because I was already accustomed to being an outsider in Japan. The prospect of upping my outsider (gaijin) status by getting my family to eat kosher food, observe the Sabbath, and look the part of a slightly odd middle-ager was quite interesting to me. I threw out my jeans and tight t-shirts in favor of a different kind of costume: saggy, half-ironed button-down collared shirts and long flared and gathered at the waist skirts that no woman in my family has worn since the early 19oos.

This is me. I’m The Wagamama Bride, here to share with you my anecdotes from a Tokyo Taoist marriage where you might find me de-stressing with a plate of hummus, gluten-free challah and a tall mug of stiff green tea.



Japanese in-laws, a Jewish daughter-in-law

Toshihiko and HIroko Wakabayashi

Yesterday was a “red number” day on the Japanese calendar – the national holiday Keiro no Hi, Respect for the Aged Day.

Here in this excerpt from The Wagamama Bride, I invite you to meet my in-laws for the first time with me in their home in Okachimachi, Tokyo…

Meeting the Future In-Laws August 1989

The journey from Aki’s 5th floor studio to his parents Penthouse apartment is so close we take the back staircase. Aki turns the key in his parents’ door, shouts Tada IMA, “I’m home!” I’m expecting a spartan flat like Aki’s bare-bones tatami room. I assume that his values must have come from his family background. Well, in fact, the opposite is true.

The genkan is a spacious foyer paved with black stones, lit by recessed pinhole lighting that illuminates a shoe box decorated with a fine blue and white porcelain vase . I hear slippers padding down the corridor. Elegantly attired in crisp neutral colours— harmonising with their formal surroundings,  Aki’s parents appear in the genkan to greet us. We bow to each other respectfully. Nothing touchy-feely, just the lowering of heads and warm smiles upon the rebound. I get the impression that I’m welcome and I’m feeling such relief I want to hug them. But I don’t, because I don’t want to shock them with Rumanian Jewish greeting etiquette-a kiss on each cheek, and give them the impression that I have no manners.

How do you make a relationship with in-laws who are so different from you actually work?

Being so different is even more of the attraction. Because from the start I am scanning them for what we could possibly have in common. So this quest for knowing them through our connections becomes the  challenge, and like a puzzle, we’re all players around the table and happily I find out we know the game rules without having to say so out loud: to figure out common interests. And thank God, the conversation takes off…

I have so much to thank my mother-in-law Hiroko Wakabayashi for. She is a huge impetus for writing The Wagamama Bride. And in my heart I thank Toshihiko too–for sadly he passed on in 2012.  

Return to Innocence

Excerpt from The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress…


I was at Akahigedo getting treatment from a Chinese psychic who used an unusual technique to align her brain waves with mine and a room full of other people. Moving my feet like windshield wipers I visualized sun and moon alternately. After a while I don’t know what happened exactly but it seems I merged with the light I was visualizing.  To say it was earth-shattering is an understatement. It was sky-shattering as well. A hole had been pierced to heaven and I was standing bathed in light in what felt like a tunnel. Or maybe it was a ring around me that rendered me invisible. I merged into the intensity of a light I had never known to exist before. The light took me and merged past, present and future into an instant knowing that the soul’s journey didn’t begin at birth and certainly wouldn’t end with death. I felt the light connecting me next with the vastness of all energetic beings, and all things that animate life.

This feeling of connection was so intense that I began to cry tears of joy. I never imagined before that connection to all beings feels so exquisitely peaceful and blissful. Time stopped while I was bathed in this light. I don’t know how long I was there. Seconds? Minutes? It felt like an eternity. It was as if the love of my life had paid me a visit, departed, then left me with an inner knowing that what I had experienced wasn’t an invention of the mind, or a wishful fabrication, because no amoun of willing or wanting could bring about a re-experiencing of it. I had absolutely no idea how to repeat the most magical moment of my life experience.

For weeks I walked around Tokyo as if my ribs had separated and my heart was so full of love, it was practically dangling out of me. My usual reserve vanished. When people I didn’t know were kind to me, I stopped them to connect and chat and say kind words that would usually stay in my neo-cortex. Now I actually spoke the words from the heart out loud.

When people who normally irritated me did their usual thing, I felt no pangs of tension anymore. This was highly uncharacteristic of me,for until the light visited me, I saw in people mostly problems needing to be fixed. By seeing myself as whole, I came likewise to appreciate their wholeness.

Returning to myself, it no longer mattered whether I was in New York or Tokyo, how I labeled myself. I was complete.

Pastel by Liane Wakabayashi
Pastel by Liane Wakabayashi


A Jewish girl and a Go-Between at a Japanese wedding


The nakodo, the go-between, was so essential to the success of a Japanese wedding that even in the early 1990s, when Aki and I tied the knot, it would have been unthinkable to not have a go-between couple sitting up with us on the dais.

Even though our marriage had been arranged by nobody other than ourselves.

The catchy tune from Fiddler on the Roof … “Match Maker, Match Maker, make me a Match” played in my head as I thought about the long-standing Jewish tradition of marriage arranged through a match-maker. In 19th century Eastern European shtetls.

This idea that good marriages were arranged by good match-makers was ingrained not only in Japanese culture but in Jewish tradition as well. But it was so antiquated that I had to laugh at the prospect of having a go-between at our wedding.

In 1959, Aki’s parents marriage had been arranged by a matchmaker. Hiroko made it clear to her matchmaker she wanted to marry into a family business where she could put her quick, problem-solving brain to work. And that’s how she ended up being chosen wife of the eldest son of the inventor of the first electric rice polishing machine factory in Japan.

Couldn’t we all benefit with a wise bit of counseling before we embark on such an important decision as marriage?

My parents had found each other at a Jewish singles mixer, a party both happened to be at in Montreal–although neither of my parents was born or raised in Canada. A love match, my parents had called it in the beginning. When their marriage floundered, there was nobody to go to for wise counseling. For practically speaking, the go-betweens did have that honorable role. To be there in good times as well as hard times.

I was 29 when I met Aki at Akahigedo, an Eastern medicine clinic in Tokyo, we fell in love. We decided to get married. And now all that remained before forging ahead with wedding plans was to find the “matchmakers”. 

I asked my very first friends in Tokyo to be my nakodo. They were a middle aged couple, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for a Columbia University alumni magazine article in 1985, which took place on my first trip to Japan when I fell in love as much with Tokyo as with them. Their eagerness to welcome me into their family made life in Japan more a feeling of returning home than anywhere else I’d traveled to. The Asanos agreed to be our go-between. We shared a love for knock-knock jokes. He would have me over for dinner once a week, his wife Sayoko spoiling me with gourmet French cooking.

The Perfect Fairytale Wedding with Asymmetric Go-Betweens

The Asanos agreed to being my nakodo–naturally. Who could be a better fit to sit on the dais with Aki and me? But a month before our wedding I got a call from Sayoko, sadness in her voice, to say that Sotaro wasn’t doing well. I knew he had been in remission with cancer. But now he was back in hospital and this meant he couldn’t be at our wedding. A few months later he succumbed to stomach cancer.

What to do? It was unthinkable-I was told-to not have any nakodo. Even Sayoko agreed to come anyway. Fortunately, the Wakabayashi family, there was a strong supply of uncles–Aki’s father Toshihiko was the eldest of 5 brothers. In a pinch, Uncle Susumu offered to sit in for Sotaro.

The wedding day arrive. April 7th, 1991. We’re in the South Peacock Room of the Imperial Hotel. Seated on the dais with us are a husband and a wife, both in their fifties, who looked pretty well matched in their wedding finery. They are married, but not  to each other. Sayoko and Susumu were meeting for the very first time on the wedding dais. And after our wedding, they never met again.

What sort of symbolic opening is that to a marriage?

I asked myself that question while we sat on the dais, and my brow furrowed in concern that this wedding custom offered us a symbolic start that was not exactly what we needed.

But after a few glasses of wine, I started to relax when I saw how huge a gesture Sayoko had made by agreeing to attend without her husband. They were an inseparable couple who traveled together, dined together, and genuinely enjoyed each others’ company. Sayoko  offered me the best gift imaginable by setting an example in elegant manners: to honor your commitments, no matter what.

What happened to the nakodo custom?

A few years later it was over. The custom of having a go-between at a Japanese wedding quietly died out. No newspaper headlines. Just an acknowledgment of the fact that it was the very rare bird these days that found marriage through go-betweens.

And it’s a pity really. Because having a friend to talk marriage over, to share your heart with, if and when the partner you expected morphs into someone you don’t recognize for a while, a nakodo can be a treasured friend.


The Lone Jew at a Japanese Buddhist Funeral

When you fall in love, asking your future husband what kind of a funeral he would want for himself is probably not the first thing you’d think of asking. And it certainly wouldn’t have been on the top of my list either except for the extraordinary situation we faced the summer of 1989 when both Aki’s paternal grandmother and grandfather passed away within 3 weeks of each other. Suddenly I was thrust into the “black” limelight. Aki told his family that I was a journalist. Which was true. He didn’t mention that he we were thinking of marriage.

From The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress:

What is expected of me at Aki’s grandfather’s funeral? I have no idea. Black umbrellas carpet the courtyard facing the ceremonial hall, the ancient Honjo temple.  Hundreds of men are dressed in black suits. A number of women are similarly attired in mourning uniforms— stiff black crepe dresses topped by a rows of pearls. July’s tsuyu season brings a sudden downpour of rain. 

Peering into the interior of the temple, I see so many gold-leaf decorations trailing down from the ceiling to adorn both sides of the Buddhist altar that I squint. Then as my eyes adjust to the central deity inside, a large gold statue of Buddha, I  ask myself: Can you really live with this? As a Jew, can you in your heart of heart visit a temple that flagrantly displays an idol, a golden Buddha? I push the thought out of my head. The Ten Commandments make it clear that idol worshipping is a no-no. But I don’t have to worship the Buddha. I don’t even have to look at him. My camera, with its telephoto lens  dangles from a strap on my shoulder It weighs on me as I abandon all desire to photograph a funeral where my role is not clearly defined. I’m not here as a journalist or a tourist or a gawker.  The sensation of holding Tsuneyoshi Wakabayashi’s frail hand in mine is too fresh in my memory.

Below the scalloped grey rooftop of the ancient Honjo temple, bushes are shaped into perfect spheres, palm trees touch the sky, and hydrangeas in luscious, almost surreal shades, of periwinkle blue line the path to the graveyard.  

I join a long line of people who pay their respects by walking up to the coffin.  I bow once to the priest striking a ceremonial gong, then I bow once more, offering Aki and his parents eye contact without a smile. Or was I supposed to avoid eye contact and just smile? Getting the expression on my face right, not too sad, not too happy,  is no easy feat. Especially when I suddenly notice amongst the Wakabayashi family members, a blond woman with fine Irish features looking at me straight in the eye. I think she’s smiling at me. Or maybe I’m hallucinating.

And so attending the funeral of Aki’s eminent Grandpa Tsuneyoshi Wakabayashi, the inventor of the rice polishing machine, was an experience bordering on the surreal. I grappled with my role here, as it occurred to me that “to death do us part” might be an understatement, according to both Japanese Buddhist custom and Torah laws concerning funeral rites and burial.

From Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy in Japan

There is one main bridge to Orthodoxy – whether you live in Tokyo, Mumbai or Sydney –  and its name is….Chabad.

Today I was interviewed by a journalist for a magazine about the unlikelihood of finding my Jewish orthodox roots in Japan.

It’s funny, it even goes without saying these days that when a non-religious, non-practicing Jew turns Orthodox, Chabad is a big part of the story. As you will find out in future posts.

In the Wagamama Bride I reflect upon what it means when a non-practicing Jew raised in the Borsht belt of northern Long Island — Great Neck to be precise — suddenly gets pangs to become religious in a country like Japan — Tokyo to be precise again — where there is not only a lack of Borsht, but a lack of beets, and until the internet came along, a lack of recipes and wisdom and Torah inspiration to entice me to even consider a Jewish life.

This is now, but what was it like 28 years ago when I took my embryonic first steps toward setting foot in a shul? The only thing I thought to do was quantify what I knew, and what I didn’t….

From the Wagamama Bride

The great ancient sage Hillel was once commanded by his Roman interrogator  to sum up the Torah teachings of 12 million ancient Hebrew letters in one short sentence. His reply: ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do to you. The rest is commentary.”

There is so much to read in Torah, to study, to apply in daily life that observant Jews spend their entire lives studying chapter by chapter of the Five Books in an orderly week to week progression throughout the year. Once the annual  cycle is completed in the autumn, the festival of Shavuot is celebrated and the entire Torah is started all over again.

“On a scale of one to ten, where are you on your Torah journey?” Aki asks, because he thinks I know a lot more than I do. I’ve never even considered such a question before, so I pause. I drum my fingers on the tablecloth.

“I am not observant. I don’t read Torah each week, not by a long shot,” I say.. “But alright. I don’t want to give myself one out of ten. I went to hebrew school for six years     at Forest Hills Jewish Center, I had a bat mitzvah in Great Neck at Temple Israel, I have Jewish parents. Okay, I’ll give myself a three.”

Aki bursts out laughing. “A three?”

“I’m just being truthful,” I protest.

We are living in truly miraculous times of instant connection to every singe soul on the planet — and we have to remember that despite the mishugas and outright undeniably outrageous unbelievable scary dysfunction visible in US and British politics at the moment –not to mention the Middle East–I want to believe that being Jewish in Japan has relevancy.  Which brings me back to Chabad and how the Lubavitch inspire me to keep on trucking, keep on smiling, keep on believing that when we get around the bend in this road, something glorious will be waiting for us…

Why the Jews of Japan Liked to Swim


The pool area at the JCC in Hiroo has been reincarnated as a wooden deck.


Excerpt from The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress…

From a sunny window at the Jewish Community Center, all is quiet around the pool, which is empty of swimmers because it’s the Sabbath. 

“Why can’t you swim on the Sabbath?” Aki asks in all seriousness.

“It’s not just swimming! It’s all manner of work, sport and electronic  entertainment.”

If all goes well, we can save swimming for a future date. Aki takes a seat next to me in the dining hall. We arrive in time for a fabulous kiddush lunch.

Summer time at the Jewish Community Center of Hiroo used to come alive around the built-in swimming pool at the back of the synagogue. You could  peep out the dining room windows and watch the swimmers one floor below,  but I can tell you from experience it was a lot more fun to change into a suit and dive into turquoise waters while a smattering of congregants sun-worshipped on the chaise lounges by the pool. Or they’d be enjoying lunch under the cafe parasols with an  order french fries and a piping hot falafel fresh from the fryer.

Those were the days. The newly rebuilt JCC, which was reopened by its Board in 2009, got rid of the pool–it also lost its allure for many of us in Tokyo who came there for socializing. Not that I didn’t like to pray or come for a Shabbat meal or celebrate Succot under the stars. But conversations around the JCC pool created lasting bonds and memories as I recall unwinding and connecting to the watery emotions of how we had ended up in Japan by way of destiny. So many fascinating life stories were told around that pool. In Tokyo it wasn’t only our scarcity that made us all the more interesting to each other. It was our reasons for being in Tokyo that could be so profound, like the young volcanologist who stopped by Tokyo on his way to studying an erupting volcano in Kyushu. Tragically he never came out alive from that trip. But I still remember our talk and the excitement he had for his life calling.

More traditional, or religious Jews follow Torah’s strict modesty rules that prohibit mixed bathing. But the Jewish Community Center describes itself as Conservative, a 20th century American-born movemen to reinterpret Torah in  ways that allow for more egalitarian participation–meaning women can become rabbis, easier conversions–allowing non-Jews to become rabbis, and other enticements to make conversions in Japan an option. If that spouse is agreeable. Which Aki was not in the year we decided to get married–1989.

Now that there are two Chabad House centers in Tokyo that JCC pool is needed more than ever before. It could have served a tremendous role in uniting all our Jewish women in a set time when swimming would be open just to women. It’s a Torah commandment that Jews know how to swim and so finding a pool for our small community of Orthodox members in Tokyo has been a problem that has yet to be resolved. For many, the only place to swim is a long overseas flight away in Israel or wherever else home may be.

One day, it’s my dream that the Jews of Japan who want to swim will once again find a welcome place to do so.

And here are just a few of the great public swimming pools in the Tokyo area where you can combine a walk in nature, a picnic, a great excuse to meet up with friends–and of course, a swim: (Summertime only)

Asian Jewish Life

Funny, but being in Japan I forget I’m in Asia, and therefore connected to the thousands of other Jews who make their lives on this side of the world.

Yesterday came a rare opportunity to not only remember that, but to share from my nearly 29 years of memories of Jewish life in Japan. What prompted this was a meeting attended by my dear friend Leza Lowitz who similarly shared her perspective with Leah Ferentinos, a visiting student from University of Pennsylvania currently doing research through Tokyo University for a project investigating Jewish life in Japan.

To my surprise, I found myself sighing quite a bit during our conversation. Jews from China, especially Hong Kong, so outnumber out tiny population in Tokyo that I sighed with envy to think they have Jewish schools that go right up from kindergarten to the end of high school. I sighed to think Hong Kong Jews can board a nonstop plane to Israel and not have to change in Korea, Beijing or Istanbul.  I sighed to think that Hong Kong Jews have multiple choices where to daven and, if they choose, to pray in a Sephardic shul that is one of the beautiful architectural historic gems of Asia.

Then I stop sighing. Because of the work of Erica Lyons, a Hong Kong literary trail-blazer amongst us, who saw the need and found the means to create a beautiful magazine dedicated to celebrating all our lives, Asian Jewish Life Magazine exists. And it’s on these pages that I found my outlet to appreciate all that is good and sweet about Jewish life in Tokyo.

Yesterday’s meeting with Lean Ferentinos jogged my memory. I brought along copies of those articles to give her to read about my perspective on Jewish life in Japan. And after doing so, I thought it’s time–if you’ve been following my blog so far– to share with you the two articles featured in Asian Jewish Life 2013 editions that became the embryonic beginnings of my memoir, The Wagamama Bride.

Thanks to Erica for treating our corner of Asia–Japan–with such interest!

Asian Jewish Life has also featured two of Japan’s most beloved American female expat writers– Tracy Slater, Four Stories founder and author of The Good Shufu, a groundbreaking memoir and  loving tribute to her Japanese husband and his father who helped smooth her difficult transition to life in Japan. And Leza Lowitz, author of Here Comes the Sun, and one of Japan’s most sought-after yoga teachers, also has written for Asian Jewish Life about her deeply personal experience of adoption in Japan.


Brown Rice for Macrobiotic Beginners

Adrianne, my mother, Grandad Richard Dennie 94 with Grandma Betty Dennie 94.
Adrianne, my mother, Grandad Richard Dennie 94 with Grandma Betty Dennie 94.

Macrobiotics is Great for Anyone

But is it great for everyone? No, not really, especially if you don’t have interest in denying yourself the pleasures of eating whatever you feel like.

What happens when you turn macrobiotic? You give up meat, dairy, sugar, white flour, all processed foods, and even resist the temptation to eat fruits and vegetables grown in far away climates and out of season.

Expect a growling stomach the first time you pass an ice cream cart and reach into you pocket for the apple slices you packed from home. Expect rolled eyes and looks of dismay-possibly being hit with a frying pan for refusing your mother’s food that she slaved away to prepare for you–not knowing you were on a serious mission to eat healthier than she does.

It’s hard enough to get your parents to love you after you turn macrobiotic. For me in Japan, turning macrobiotic just days before I met my Tokyo in-laws for the first time could have been the beginning of the end of our relationship.

But since my in-laws-to-be were already used to their son Aki’s macrobiotic diet, they were generous in respecting me as an accomplice and not a challenger who had come to wreak havoc around the dinner table.

Excerpt from The Wagamama Bride: A Memoir in Progresa

The sweet things in life often start off as treats of the rich coveted by the rest of us, and how over time inventors find ways to make these enticements that we don’t necessarily need available to us all.

It happens over and over again, until what is coveted loses its value.

I’m trying to make sense of what happened with Aki’s grandfather’s invention, the rice polishing machine. With its development and mass marketing, Japan went from milling white rice via a water wheel to a small machine no bigger than a TV console.

So it’s not that Japanese weren’t eating white rice. They were, but this made the polishing process much faster and cheaper.

Aki was feeding his grandfather brown rice porridge about the time we met. He was brainwashed, he said, to believe that macrobiotics could cure anything, even his grandfather’s stroke.

So here’s Aki when I meet him at the clinic proposing to come over to my house not for a lesson in the history of white rice in his nation but in order to teach me how to handle a pressure cooker safely and accurately enough to make brown rice that didn’t stick or burn onto the bottom of the pressure cooker. No small feat, making brown rice, that looks appetising and tastes as good as birthday cake—Aki tells me. He says that brown rice cooked to perfection is sweet and most delicious.

Macrobiotics is a Family Affair

Macrobiotics for the Wagamama Bride was no simple matter because I wasn’t just adopting a diet against the collective common sense of a nutrition starved, post-War Japan mindset that continues to this day. But I was up against the family who prided themselves on inventing the modern day rice polishing machine that led to the near extinction in Japan of brown rice consumption–until macrobiotic founder George Ohsawa declared war on white rice over 50 years ago.

My grandfather Dick in England had a quaint expression he’d used whenever my grandmother Betty would challenge his thinking. Chaque un a sont gout — to each his own– he’d say with a little grin. He just would not let someone else’s divergent opinion bother him. And I think that unconsciously, we chose to give the people we love little uncomfortable pricks, to challenge their belief systems in order to become acquainted with what we really are ready to fight for.

We are what we eat, and we become who we eat with

Was macrobiotics worth the fight? No, my in-laws decided from the start. And around a tension-free dining table, I came to learn that it’s not just what we eat but who we share our food in peace with that nourishes us.

Rewriting the Rules of Marriage in Japan

DSCN7837Can a Jewish girl from New York ever strive to become as Japanese as the  daughter-in-law your husband’s parents always expected?

“Of course not! Hiroko strikes me as completely of my mother’s generation—looking for a modern way to define her marriage with more wiggle room for her to be her own person, but unlike my mother, who took the commuter train to Manhattan every day to her secretarial job at the Museum of Modern Art, Hiroko worked in the office appendaged to the front of her home, next door to the family business- her father-in-law’s rice polishing machine factory . While my mother was reading about women’s lib from the great provocateurs Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem — as my Rumanian father would come to see them, Hiroko discretely turned to a book of Hatha yoga for her quiet path to emancipation and peace of mind. She never saw women’s liberation as a goal or even an option. Hiroko gave me the impression she put everyone in her family’s needs before her own.”

If I were to follow Hiroko’s example, I would put Aki’s career and his needs before my own. But I can’t because it’s against my temperament to do so.  Aki in his infinite wisdom is sensitive to who I am and understands from the start that we are going to be rewriting the rules–if not the definition itself of what marriage is all about. He understands that  I love my  life as much as he loves his and I think secretly Hiroko understands that we are young. We are idealistic. And so this our agreement: 

Aki wants me to accept his training at Akahigedo into perpetuity. He sets no goal for completing his training even though he has — if we’re lucky — one Sunday off per month.

I want Aki to accept my traveling in Japan and outside of Japan for my work as a journalist for the Japan Times, JAL and ANA airline magazines.

Liane Wakabayashi

Aki wants me to accept living in Japan as a condition for marriage. I love Japan more than any other country I’ve been to and so I happily agree to what seems less a condition than a gift.

And from these naiive conditions, we begin a marriage that is based on separate lives in the same country–his country–a Japan of the early 1990s that I am fascinated with, full of admiration for, inspired to write about, and in so doing, grateful to Aki for enabling me to call Tokyo home.