Travel books: Tokyo (1958)

[…….] One morning I went to the Israeli Embassy to have a chat in my native tongue. When I entered the office I found the Israeli members of the embassy assembled in a room talking loudly in an agitated manner. That morning the mail had contained a card posted in Tokyo, a commercial advertisement. On one side there was a printed invitation to visit a coffee house called Café Aleph with the Hebrew letter aleph pictured on it and on the other side there was an invitation to visit a wine bar called Bar Zain and the Hebrew letter zain pictured on it. The Embassy was used to getting commercial leaflets of all sorts but this one was special because of the Hebrew letters and especially the letter zain. In Hebrew slang, the word zain stands for penis. It seemed that an Israeli had arrived in Tokyo and had started a shady business somehow connected with sex. Everyone agreed that Bar Zain had to be investigated at once. However, people of diplomatic status could not just go there to investigate because it could also be a trap set by our Arab enemies. When I heard this I said to them: “I don't belong to the embassy and I don't have diplomatic status, why don't you give me the postcard and I will investigate?"

They gave me the postcard and I went, that evening, to investigate. Bar Zain was in Sinjuku district, a tiny wine bar in a narrow corridor with only four or five high stools in front of a narrow bar. Behind the bar there was a young beautiful and slightly plump woman waiting for customers. This was the opening night and I happened to be the first customer. Apart from Maya Arakida, which was the woman's name, I soon had the opportunity to meet her partner, Myahara Katzumi, a young man with a black moustache and a small black goatee beard. There were no Israelis in sight. Actually, I was the first Israeli they had ever set eyes on. When I asked how they got the idea of calling their business enterprise by Hebrew letters, especially aleph and zain, the answer was simple.

Myahara Katzumi was a mathematician and knew the Hebrew letter aleph because it was a mathematical notation that represented the Cardinals of George Cantor's infinite sets. He had chosen this letter for their café. Since they had also set their minds on opening a wine bar, they had looked for another Hebrew letter and hit on the letter zain, the seventh letter in the Hebrew alphabet, without having any knowledge of its second meaning in Hebrew slang.

I struck up a friendship with Maya and Myiahara. Bar Zain became my favourite place in Tokyo. I used to sit there almost every evening, learning Japanese and what I liked most – Kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese writing. These two people, especially Myahara who spoke English quite well, though with a heavy Japanese accent were my advisers and interpreters on all things Japanese, and there were many things “Japanese" that I could not understand. To give but one example: I travelled a lot in the country. Since most people I met on the way did not speak English and I knew only a few words in Japanese, I had to phrase my Japanese sentences in such a way that they would give me short answers like yes or no. Instead of asking “where is the railway station?" I used to phrase my question thus: “Is the railway station in this direction?" And, at the same time I pointed a finger in that direction. It almost never happened that I got a simple answer of yes or no. Instead I got a long answer that was usually repeated more than twice. When I asked Myahara about it, he told me that in Japan it was impolite to give a short answer to a query, especially by a foreigner who was a guest in the country. A short answer was a rude answer. To make their answer polite they would go into details that sometimes would have nothing to do with my question. They would tell me, for example: “Do you see that grocery shop on the left that belongs to a nice man whose wife died of cancer three years ago? Pass that shop and turn to the right where, at the corner, there is a large cherry tree that is not in blossom at the moment. Take the first turning to the left and you will see the railway station on your right". When they saw from my puzzled face that I did not understand, they would repeat it twice. This is not a peculiar Japanese habit. We always repeat our sentences when we think that the person we are talking to does not understand.

One evening, I was sitting on my reserved stool (yes, I had a reserved stool in Bar Zain, inscribed with my name), next to a drunken Japanese, studying the Kanji for the word death, in order to memorise it. I wrote the character for death repeatedly on a sheet of paper. Suddenly my neighbour moved and turned towards me. I looked at him through the corners of my eyes and saw a white-bluish face with mesmerised red bulging eyes following my hand repeatedly writing the character of death, and it dawned on me at that very moment that this drunk man was sure that I was sent by the spirits to tell him that his life had come to an end. I got frightened and started to scribble on the same sheet of paper all sorts of kanji characters that I knew – up, down, tree, fish, four, child, woman, bird, and so on. It took me two pages of scribbling until the drunkard got the idea that all that I was doing was practising Kanji characters.

I was not the only one who asked questions. Myahara himself had a puzzle that I had to solve for him. He could not understand anti Semitism. It was clear to him why the rest of the world did not like Japanese people, but he could not understand why they did not like Jews. After all we all look the same. I told him about the long tradition of anti-Semitism in Europe but I was not sure that he understood it.

My friendship with Myahara was not confined to my short Tokyo visit. Six years after I left Japan, I happened to be in Copenhagen. I went one afternoon to a coffee bar and there was my friend Myahara sitting at one of the tables. He told me that he had lived in Sweden for a couple of years until he got fed up and decided to move to Paris. On the way he had stopped over at Copenhagen to have a cup of coffee when I suddenly entered. What a coincidence! Since then we had met again, we went to Paris together and after a while I lost him again. More years passed. I was now living in London. One day I went to Dillon's bookshop next to London University to buy a book and there I bumped into Myahara Katzumi again. Now we both live in London and see each other from time to time.

In those Tokyo days I also met and became friendly with an Israeli who had just finished his engineering studies at the Haifa Polytechnic and had got a grant to study the car industry in Japan. [……..] What interested us more were the mysteries of the Japanese massage parlours. Every city in Japan was full of saunas and massage parlours. Some were cheap, communal public baths, but there were also more expensive hot bath joints where private massage was part of the bill. You lay down on a table, completely naked while a young woman wearing only a bra and a pair of knickers massaged you. What we could not settle between the two of us was the question of whether these massage sessions also offered sex or not. My opinion was that they did not offer sex. I based my opinion on that there was a cultural trend to segregate things in people's minds. Massage belonged to the massage compartment in the brain while sex belonged to the sex compartment and these two compartments were different. My friend however did not believe in such segregation. It was true that during the wash or the massage, most of our erogenous zones were gently touched as if by accident. When it happened I was in great difficulties trying to prevent an erection because it did not seem to me to be an appropriate thing to happen at that particular time. My friend, however, had a different interpretation of similar experiences and observations. Since we could not settle our diverging opinions by argument, we decided to check it out. Each of us would visit a massage parlour to find out who was right. I chose a massage parlour close to an American military base with the idea that if there was a connection between massage and sex it would probably be at such a place. I went in for a massage. While the woman soaped and washed me, I touched her. She gently but firmly removed my hand. When we met again and exchanged our experiences, my friend confessed that what happened to him was similar. Although our experiences in the massage parlour could not be regarded as scientific proof, because we only visited two such joints out of thousands, we both agreed that my opinion was probably the correct one.

That same Israeli friend, whose name I have forgotten translated into English some of my Hebrew columns about Japan that I sent to my paper in Israel. He offered it to Mainchi, an English language daily published in Tokyo. The articles were accepted and published as a series. After a while the editor of Mainichi received letters from Japanese readers who did not like the articles because they depicted Japanese traditional events as Oriental curiosities in a patronising way and the publications were discontinued.

Before I had to leave Japan and continue on my round the world trip, there was still one issue that I had to investigate and this was the geisha and the tea room experience. This was not an easy subject to investigate. There were two obstacles in my way: one was financial and the other was linguistic. A proper tea house event with a geisha or geishas present was an expensive affair that I could not afford, and the linguistic problem was that I did not speak Japanese. These two obstacles seemed to be insurmountable. As my luck had it, Mr. Eisenberg came to the rescue. Mr. Eisenberg is today (if he is the same Eisenberg) one of the richest people in Israel (so I am told). At the time of my stay in Tokyo in 1959, he was a successful young businessman, fluent in Japanese, whom I met at one of my visits to the Israeli embassy. When he heard about my problem, he said to me: “I will take you to a geisha tea house".

On the appointed evening Eisenberg took me by taxi to a tea house, somewhere in the Ginza district which is the entertainment centre, similar to what Soho is to London. We entered the house, took off our shoes and put on slippers. A very attractive woman, dressed in what seemed to me to be a traditional geisha costume, showed us in. There was another geisha in the room and they both served us dinner. While we were eating, one of the geishas played on the kato and sang. In between the watching, chewing, swallowing, drinking and listening, Eisenberg was chatting with the geishas in what sounded to me fluent Japanese. He seemed to amuse them and they were laughing a lot. I do not know if he was really funny or it was just the geisha's duty to laugh at whatever men were saying. The linguistic barrier was such an obstacle that I cannot say that I had enjoyed that evening, but it was an interesting experience none the less. Next evening, when I met Maya and Myahara at Bar Zain, they were dying to know what happened at the tea house. It seemed that the ordinary Japanese did not attend geisha parties and they were as baffled as I was about the goings on in these famous tea establishments […….]