Happy Hannukah from my mother

I’m just six weeks into mourning the loss of my mother and my approach, at least so far, is to think of doing things that would please my mother,make her proud of what she herself accomplished in her 84 years, and even to do things that bring resolution to what she left unfinished.

My mother was always my greatest inspiration to be a writer. The scene emblazoned in my memory comes from childhood, when my mother would sit at the dining room table typing up her English literature essays for the BA college degree at Queens College that she was slowly but surely working toward. It took my mother ten years but she did it and with honors! She loved reading and writing and thinking about those literary assignments, and though she didn’t share much with me about the contents, she gave me the strong sense that reading literature and thinking about it were powerful ways of rounding out a busy work and family life. My mother commuted to Manhattan to work as an executive secretary, came home to prepare dinner for my Dad and her two daughters, then plopped down in the dining room chair to read and write.

My mother was vicariously pleased when I started publishing shortly after completing my BA in art history. She loved to see my name in print, but was aghast when she heard how much my articles were fetching:  $20 for an article in a Brooklyn Heights newspaper in 1983 was still a pittance. But when she saw I was mad about writing, and wasn’t doing it for the pay, but because I had to, I absolutely knew that this was my calling–even if it meant taking secretarial jobs in Manhattan, working as a waitress at Jewish delis, anything to support the self-imposed task of teaching myself to write the hard way: by trial and error. So what if an article took 20 hours to write for $20 pay.

Eventually that persistence paid off. Japan Airlines flew me first class to Tokyo in 1987 to write about the Tokyo department store exhibitions based on my small press publishing activities. My mother took this news with amazement. On the one hand, she was happy for me. On the other, she knew instinctively that the lure of Japan had somehow pulled me out of the New York City orbit. And though she never said it, and I didn’t say it either. We both knew if I could make it as a writer in Japan — a step that would propel me out of the NYC secretarial pool  —  then it was going to be Sayonara New York.

Within a month of arriving in Tokyo, the Japan Times hired me as a copy editor. Writing headlines and photo captions wasn’t exactly a journalism dream job, but my mother’s work ethic came with me. I used every chunk of free time to write articles, which I then submitted to the Japan Times editors in charge of art and culture, travel, book reviews, and what was then called the people pages.

I worked at the Japan Times for two years, 1987-1989.  I freelanced articles for the next 16 years. I got busy with raising my children and stopped writing until 2012 when meeting supermodel Dean Newcombe, who dropped  his career to give priority to helping tsunami victims in Ishinomaki immediately following the devastating March 11, 2011 triple disaster in Tohoku.  When he approached me about writing an article about his tsunami relief efforts for the Japan Times, I couldn’t refuse.

But this year was supposed to be different.   I think I knew in my heart that my mother’s life was coming to an end and everything I took on had that shadow of awareness. I wanted to write about things that were meaningful to me. And in to my mother. And so I put my energy into the Wagamama Bride. 

Well, my mother took a turn for the worse in the Fall. She passed away in November. Then she immediately got busy from the Other Side. No sooner had I returned from her funeral to Tokyo, then I got an unusual request from the Japan Times to write about Hannukah for the newspaper. I was stunned. With so few Jews in Japan, it would never occur to me to approach the newspaper from my side. I seriously do believe that my mother’s heart and soul wanted me to write this.There was no way to say no. I am deeply thankful to the newspaper for giving me this opportunity to share the Hannukah tradition that my mother passed down to me…

Get the latkes out for Hanukkah in Japan

Farewell to the Mother of the Bride

Liane in wedding hall dressing room with my mother Adrianne and Aki's mother Hiroko
Liane Wakabayashi, the bride, with mother-in-law Hiroko Wababayashi in kimono. Adrianne Lebensbaum, mother of the bride is on the right.

My mother Adrianne Lebensbaum’s  lifelong habit of voracious reading gave weight to her astute comments about everything I’ve ever written. The Wagamama Bride’s progress — and what was holding up its completion — peppered our trans-Pacific long-distance conversations to the point where she jokingly said to me over the summer, “Liane, I sure hope it’s done before I die.”

She laughed. I laughed. But the truth was she had lung cancer and we didn’t know how long she had to live.

On November 13th, my mother Adrianne Lebensbaum, who was a young and life-loving 84 years old, and probably the one person on this planet who most eagerly awaited the completion and publication of the Wagamama Bride, very sadly passed away.

Her struggle is over. And in a way mine is too. Throughout the five years I’ve been working on the Wagamama Bride, I was hesitant to talk too revealingly about my mother in a memoir that would expose a woman who was– to all appearances– the most extraverted, live-wire imaginable, always on the go, always with a draw full of theatre tickets and plane tickets to amuse her for the next half a year. Yet at the same time my mother was so private that she  passed away when nobody was in the room.

There is a prohibition in Judaism — called lashon hora — against speaking ill of anyone, especially your own parents. Of course these are the people who present us with the greatest goldmine of not very flattering memories. And writing juicy negative tell-all stuff about a parent just happens to sell more books.

Luckily, I won’t because I don’t have to. There’s so much good to write about my mother that it would fill a book in itself.  I feel less shy now about telling my mother how awesome she was. She had the capacity to love unconditionally this older daughter who fled 7,000 miles away from New York to reinvent herself in Japan. From the start of my marriage  in April 1991, my mother made a courageous decision not to interfere in the teensiest way.  If she missed me much she kept it to herself. Not once did my outspoken and very direct mother tell me that the only sane thing would be for me and the grandchildren she adored  to come back to the US to live near her. She didn’t do it because she respected the traditional idea that you marry “into” the husband’s family. So even though her heart ached for us to be together, as mine did too, Mom found her own way of bringing us close. She brought us all to the US every year. And came six times to Japan. 

This excerpt from the Wagamama Bride shows my mother in her glory, as a staunch realist, a champion and challenger of my decision to create my life in Japan.


“What’s cooking?” Mom asks with the morning news blasting on the kitchen TV set.

“Mom, can you turn the TV set down. It’s almost bedtime in Tokyo and I have something important to talk to you about.”

“Go ahead,” she says as I hear the kettle whistling shrilly.

“I’m having a hard day Mom. It’s one of those days I just feel Aki and I are at such odds.”

“Well, dear. You should have realised that your different background would always be a source of conflict,” Mom says.

“Why didn’t you warn me?” I demand.

“Because you’re an adult. You wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.” She turns the kettle off. 

“I’m looking for comfort! How about something besides ‘I told you so?” I say as I reach for a swig of my own nightcap of peppermint tea.

“Well dear,” Mom says, “I like Aki. I like his parents. They’re menches–good people, with their hearts in the right place. It’s just that they think different than us.”

“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Thinking differently doesn’t mean they’re evil monsters,” I say, putting down the receiver gently, strengthened by my mother’s words and feeling the wave of warmth penetrate me from afar with my best interest in her heart.

I will miss those phone conversations. The lifeline to my mother’s heart has been severed by her passing, but now that she’s gone “up” I hear her all the time, maybe more so than before. I hear my mother when I’m washing the dishes, when I’m walking the dog, when I’m frittering away time on Facebook rather than focusing myself on editing my memoir. Mom is waiting for the book we spent so many years and conversations planning together and I can’t wait to see her reaction when I can wave Wagamama Bride up at the sky.

When a First-Born Japanese Son is Unlikely to Move Overseas

Wakabayashi wedding at Imperial HotelAFWJ is the acronym for the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, of which I’m a member, even though – as the old Woody Allen joke goes: I would never join a club that would have me as a member.

Despite my reluctance to join the AFWJ, I did finally break out of my introverted shell a few years ago when Louise, a new friend, chided me for missing out on the best part of being a foreign wife in Japan. Friendships with other foreign women. I told her that I had foreign friends and that none of them were members.  As we are both writers, Louise reassured me that the AFWJ could be a creative outlet, or whatever I wanted it to be. And so joining the AFWJ became an outlet for me to vent, ponder, kvetch and overall write about family life as the Wagamama Bride for the rather pleasant AFWJ quarterly magazine.

Occasionally I go to AFWJ meetings too and learn interesting things like the fact that the majority of us are married to the eldest sons, the chonan.

This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the eldest son-if he’s a good boy-is going to reside close to his parents, or at the very least, take care of them in old age. When they pass, he will light incense daily in the Buddhist altar and take care of the grave with monthly visits. Or he’ll consign his foreign wife to monthly graveyard duty.

So where, you may ask, are the foreign wives married to jinan, second born sons?

They’re living back in their home countries with their trailing Japanese husbands! Jinan tend to be much more flexible. They can pick up and reroot in their wives’ country and leave it to their older brothers to mind the homestead and take care of future graves. Jinan tend not to have reserved places in the family cemetery if they remain in Japan, so why not?

Marrying the Chonan And Simultaenously Going House-Hunting

We don’t like to admit it–too blunt for words. But the truth be known, the first sighting of our in-laws in their own homes offers a wake up call. For foreign wives who choose to marry the chonan, you’re looking at some day inheriting the house of  in-laws and the security that comes with living rent free for the rest of our lives. That’s the upside. The headache that comes with living in a house or a neighborhood you would never voluntarily choose to consign the rest of your life probably won’t occur to you if your are head over heals in love with your chonan.

Nobody told me that when you first set eyes on your future in-laws house, do a visualization exercise and fast-forward through the decades. Inhale the tatami flooring, see if the kitchen has 3 burners and adequate ventilation, a room with southern exposure and good sunlight pouring onto the dining room table,  or whatever it is that gives you a feeling of home. Or to ask yourself: “Can I live with this?”

If the answer was yes. Ask the question again a new way: “Can I live with this forever?”

Nobody told me to do this, and so I nurtured another fantasy. That one day, once we were married, I’d somehow convince my chonan to move away, to buy a house of our choosing, in a country of my choosing, even though it wasn’t very realistic given that Aki would remain the chief breadwinner, or the chief bread-baker, as he fancied calling himself.

If I was going to get my wish, I’d have to do so another way. In the meantime the challenge would be to relax and enjoy the life I had chosen. . .


A Wagamama Menu


I swear, with all my heart, that I did not name my memoir after London’s wildly successful Japanese noodle restaurant chain by the same name.

But I can’t help but admit that this past August while in London for a family reunion we did sneak in a decent bowl of stir fried rice down by the London Eye at a Wagamama Restaurant along the Thames River.

As we were reading the menu, one of my kids asked why this restaurant was called Wagamama. It’s like opening a British tea shop in Tokyo and calling it “Selfish.”

Having grown up with Japanese as their first language, my kids know wagamama to mean one who disturbs the peace. The nail that stands out, the disrupter, the one who dares to have an opinion that differs from the rest. Or, to quote my dear friend Nourit  in this excerpt from “The Wagamama Bride”…

My friend Sho says I’m  wagamama,” Nourit explains.

“Wagamama? A kind of mama? A mother?” I ask. 

“No! Not at all! Wagamama means self-centered,  egotistical, that I don’t show enough appreciation!

“Yes, I am wagamama. I say what I feel,” Nourit says, her flared cigarette making figure eights in the air. “Nobody will stop me because I speak the truth. People are afraid of hearing the truth in this society. But that’s their problem, not mine!”

 Wagamama was one of the first words I committed to remember in the Japanese language. I wrapped it around my tongue and blew it out whenever things were just not going my way. Just saying the word made me laugh out loud. Which was pretty much every day in the early years of culture shock and transition from New York wagamama-ishness, which might roughly be defined as a tendency to be strong, pushy and overbearing to a fault. These were traits that I suppose I tried to hone in New York for survival. But introverts don’t make very good wagamama-ists in New York. And when I got to Tokyo,  wagamama behavior looks so gaudy and theatrical that I gradually learned to save it for only my nearest and dearest.

A few months after discovering “wagamama” I met this man at Akahigedo who was giving me shiatsu. Bells went off in my head. I rolled the name around on my tongue.Wakabayashi. The name sounded so familiar.

The Wagamama Bride is a memoir in progress. Thanks for reading thus far. Feel free to leave a comment and subscribe for updates. Thanks for becoming part of my extended Wagamama family!


Mother of the Bride


Why is it that those last steps to the mountain summit are always the hardest? It’s the point you want to give up and turn back and say this is more than I can do. I’m out of air. I’m out of breath.

Well, that’s just about where I was in writing my memoir. I could see the summit but it remained as elusive as Mount Everest, a glacier to conquer, making these final months of writing and editing probably a lot more difficult than they need be.

Trying to stay optimistic under a daily bombardment of back-to-school family matters that come, I suppose, with raising teenagers, I lost my concentration. I lost my perspective.

So who comes along to offer me a very gentle nudge to keep going? None other than the Mother of the Bride – Japan’s pre-eminent bridal dress designer, an octogenarian who spends every moment of her life breathing love and life into the wedding ceremony. She is looking for a writer and I am looking for an angel. And somehow we find each other.

So here I am in the Mother of the Bride’s palatial headquarters commanding a seven floor view of Tokyo Midtown. We’re sitting across from each other in a French Provincial salon with bleached wood table and well-cushioned seating on elaborately carved legs.

Over the span of a few hours, we will discover we have much in common. The Mother of the Bride and the Wagamama Bride were both married in the Peacock room of the Imperial Hotel.  The Mother of the Bride and the Mother-in-Law of the Wagamama Bride both graduated from prestigeous Kyoritsu College. The Mother of the Bride has one eye trained on the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. The Wagamama Bride did an internship fixing holes in 18th century Russian costumes of nobility at the Costume Institute.

At the end of our meeting she hands me a scarf decorated with a lovely long-necked black and white crane. And shock again. Another shock of awe and amazement when I see that this crane resembles those elegant long-necked birds of fortune that adorned the long-sleeved kimono I wore for my wedding.

Writing, like marriage itself, is a test of vows. The cranes. The scarf. The kimono remind me that writing a book is like marriage itself. First there’s the falling in love phase where you are so in love with the idea of writing a book that you’re positively giddy. Over time, the writing ripens into a routine of highs and lows, moments of doubts and reconciliation.

In Nitzavim, the Torah parsha that I read just days before meeting the Mother of the Bride, the haftarah begins by referring to the power of the oath that a bride and groom make by donning  gorgeous finery.

“I will rejoice greatly in God. My soul will be glad with my God, for He has clothed me in garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness: like a bridegroom who wears majestic clothing, and a bride who adorns herself with her jewelry. ..”

It never occurred to me until now, reading this passage, how the oaths that we make might even be elevated by the clothes worn:

When the Mother of the Bride handed me this auspicious crane scarf –symbolic of a happy married life–she gave me the strength to not give up on my dream. The mountain summit to finish this memoir just got a little closer. Wakabayashi wedding




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.