Two Japanese men sit at a seder table wearing kippot
Kyoto residents Kosuke Takaki (left) and Ken Inoue attend their first seder at the invitation of two traveling Jewish acquaintances, April 2017. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

Seder in Kyoto: Hold the wasabi, pass the squash soup

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As we were getting ready for the first-night Passover seder we attended this year, we couldn’t help but wonder: Would we be eating our matzah ball soup with a Japanese soup spoon? Was wasabi going to be the bitter herbs on the seder plate?

Was the rebbetzin going to be wearing a kimono?

After all, this seder was being hosted by Chabad of Kyoto, and we really had no idea what to expect.

a crowd of seder guests
Chabad seder in Kyoto drew 260 people, mostly visiting Israelis. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

We certainly didn’t expect a crowd of 260, and neither did the rabbi nor his cadre of helpers, apparently. Only a few days beforehand, the seder had to be moved from the Chabad house to a banquet room at the nearby Hotel Heian No Mori, a stylish Japanese-appointed hotel also known as a ryokan.

We think we can safely say no ryokan in all of Japan had ever seen anything like this. Bearded men in black hats and long black coats running to and fro to serve food and keep things organized. An energetic and sweaty seder leader on vacation from Brooklyn, New York, who worked the room by galloping from table to table like an emcee at the Chabad Telethon. Hebrew being spoken by 85 percent of the attendees (Israelis currently living in Japan or just traveling through). And 12 nearly packed tables of 24 seats each, a pile of round, shmura matzah within reach of everyone along with a seder plate of haroset, lettuce leaves, a hard-boiled egg, freshly grated horseradish and onion pieces (yuck) rather than parsley for dipping into salt water.

No cherished orange. And no traditional shankbone, either. And a seder table without Manischewitz? Unfathomable!

But when you’re part of what organizers said was the largest seder ever in Japan, you really don’t sweat the details — like squash soup instead of … well, don’t get us started.

Andy and Stacey pose together under a the flowers of a cherry blossom tree
Andy Altman-Ohr and Stacey Roberts-Ohr went to Japan this Passover to see the cherry blossoms.

So what were we doing in Japan on Passover, anyway? It was the lure of cherry blossom viewing that brought us to Kyoto, where much of the city was awash in full, glorious, pink and white bloom, in parks, alongside rivers and on the grounds of magnificent temples. Absolutely stunning. We booked our stay months ago, and were fortunate enough to arrive just as the cherry blossoms were beginning their seven-to-10-day run. On the day of the seder, we toured beautiful gardens, saw old wooden buildings, enjoyed a coffee alongside a pink-canopied canal and then left our tiny Airbnb room for what turned out to be an unforgettable experience.

We’ve attended some pretty cool Passover seders before: a gourmet-caliber feast planned in large part by chef Charlie Ayers at Google headquarters in Mountain View (we were lucky enough to be invited by a Google employee) and a top-notch, very haimish community seder in Vacaville hosted by Chabad of Solano County. In every case, the bottom line is how nice it is to be surrounded by fellow Jews on Passover, and that certainly felt all the more true 5,300 miles away from the Bay Area.

Japan has had a Chabad center in Tokyo for two decades, but the Kyoto branch was launched just last summer, run mostly by Chabad officials in Tokyo, 230 miles away. Now, Kyoto is under the direction of Rabbi Elad Pur and his wife, Shikma, an Israeli couple who have been on the job just six weeks.

Shabbat dinners over the past months have drawn 30 people at most, just about all of them travelers. Only 200 or so Jews (many of them college professors and their spouses) live among the 1.5 million people in Kyoto, Shikma said.

The seder, on the other hand, drew a conglomeration of Israelis, Americans, Australians, Brits and other Europeans on vacation, as well as a handful of Jews living in Japan. The room was predominantly Israeli, including 10 tablemates in our immediate vicinity; three of them were 20-somethings who had recently completed their Israel Defense Forces service and were traveling around Asia for two months.

At another table were Kyoto residents Kosuke Takaki and Ken Inoue, a pair of non-Jewish Japanese men who were introduced to their first seder by a pair of musician friends, Susan Sterngold and Mike Resnick, who were on a three-week vacation from Suffern, New York. It’s tough to say this with any certainty, but we didn’t see any Japanese Jews.

The seder was different than a typical American seder. Classic Passover tunes such as “Chad Gad Ya” and even “Dayenu” sounded way different from the versions we usually sing around the table. And just about all of the readings were in Hebrew, not English, so we found it hard to follow along, not that there was much order to anything. Sort of ironic, since “seder” means “order.” The events of this night included various bursts of seder elements, but nothing congruous.

And then there was the food. Absent was matzah ball soup, chopped liver and gefilte fish. Instead we feasted on massive amounts of well-prepared Israeli salads, including chopped cucumber, tomato and red pepper, fresh beets, roasted eggplant and the most stunning item of all: freshly made, chunky guacamole! We half-expected to be spreading wasabi on our matzah, but not guacamole. Chicken and roasted potatoes completed the meal, and for dessert, young Chabad emissaries and various helpers doled out orange slices (a common end to a Japanese meal).

We certainly can’t say this was the most spiritual seder we’ve ever attended, and the reading of the haggadah felt a bit rushed and frenzied, even though volunteer Leivi Barfield, the combination game-show-host-seder-leader, did a spirited job without a microphone. Also, everyone who wanted one received a zip-lock bag of matzah to go.

It should be noted that at the time the seder was supposed to start, only about 60 percent of the seats were filled, and when it actually did start a half-hour later, only about 75 percent were full. Clearly, it was a case of JST — only this time we weren’t sure if it was Jewish or Japanese Standard Time.

Andy Altman-Ohr is former managing editor of J. and Stacey Roberts-Ohr is a former Jewish community professional in the Bay Area. Read more about their travels and new life in Mexico on Stacey’s blog “Believe It Ohr Not.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.

Stacey Roberts-Ohr

Stacey Roberts-Ohr is a former Jewish community professional in the Bay Area