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Discovering Jewish Heritage in Japan: An Untapped Luxury Experience

Japan isn’t a country that most people associate with Jewish history and culture, but there are some important connections between Jews and the Japanese. Luxury Jewish heritage tours in Japan are the perfect way to explore one of the world’s most beautiful, fascinating – and surprising – countries. Gil Travel is an expert at arranging luxury customized travel in Japan!

Over the last decade, Japan has really opened up to Western tourism. It’s not that Japan didn’t formerly welcome foreign tourists, but that the tourism industry has taken big steps forward in recent years and is a lot more organized and geared towards accommodating Westerners. Japan is basically four islands off the northeastern coast of Asia and is typically a 12 hour flight from both the US and Europe. Until recently, it was well off the usual tourist path.

Japan was an important staging post and logistical base during the Vietnam War. Most Americans who made it to Japan were young servicemen, and there are still at least 50,000 Americans serving on US bases in Japan. Civilians who visited the country were particularly interested in Japanese culture and history or traditional martial arts

Japan invested heavily in hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics (which were spectacularly derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic). In anticipation of the $20 billion games, Japan launched a major effort to make the country more tourist friendly. We started to see English signs and information boards in railway stations and a new emphasis on English language skills. 

Japan is a high-trust society with fairly low crime rates and the Japanese economy is traditionally cash based. Most Japanese people are completely comfortable walking around with large amounts of cash, but there are now plenty of ATMs that accept US credit cards – as do many hotels and businesses. In 2024, Japan has the balance about right. You’re immersed in a completely new culture as soon as you clear customs at Narita airport, but you will find a (highly advanced) Western infrastructure and helpful English speakers. Japan is an adventure!

Luxury Travel in Japan

Luxury Travel in Japan

One of the first things that you’ll notice when you explore Japan is that the country is spotlessly clean! The people are well-dressed, polite and considerate and the towns and cities look prosperous, orderly and well-maintained. Japan has its share of problems and social pressures, but you’re unlikely to see them as a tourist. Americans who are used to big city blights like violent crime, homelessness, drug abuse, anti-social behavior and trash on the sidewalks feel like they landed on a different planet as they explore Tokyo and Kyoto, or visit Japan’s mountain villages and forests. 

The Japanese are courteous to the point of formality and place a huge emphasis on providing high service standards. One example is uniformed cab drivers, complete with spotless white gloves, who exit the car to open the passenger door for you. When you buy a souvenir in a shop, or even quite basic consumer items, the sales assistant or store owner will take the time to carefully wrap your purchase, paying special attention to its presentation. The Japanese like luxury and take real pride in appearances and etiquette. 

In a nutshell, ordinary people in Japan can expect the old-fashioned service standards, personal attention, and respect that you’ll usually only receive in a small number of exclusive luxury establishments in the US. Luxury travel in Japan is on a different level entirely and is also super-efficient. The Japanese pay attention to detail and it’s extremely unusual for transport to ever be delayed or canceled. Gil Travel can create a tailored itinerary that showcases the very best of Japanese luxury. 

  • Visit the high-tech and bright lights of Tokyo
  • Explore ancient forest temples and shrines
  • Relax in natural hot springs as the snow falls around you
  • Browse luxury shops and designer boutiques
  • Visit Japan’s most prestigious museums and art galleries

Luxury Train Travel in Japan

Luxury Train Travel in Japan

Japan was an early pioneer of high speed rail travel. Other countries have caught up, but the iconic Shinkansen (known in the West as the bullet train) was revolutionary in its day. The strategic project was launched in the 1960s to connect remote Japanese cities with Tokyo and boost the economy. Admittedly, a trip from Tokyo to Osaka is not on the same scale as a trip from New York to Chicago, but luxury train travel in Japan is an unmissable experience. 

One quirk of the Japanese transport system is that luggage and passengers travel separately. You’ll board the shinkansen with hand luggage only – like entering the cabin of a plane – and your suitcases will be delivered to your next destination by a special courier. This will sound odd to Americans, but it’s a superb system. You travel light and you travel fast and train carriages and compartments, and platforms and escalators aren’t cluttered up with bulky baggage.

Overall,  luxury train travel in Japan is wonderful. The trains are fast, clean and run on time and you will never have to deal with irritating passengers yakking into their cellphones or using noisy electronic devices. You won’t see anybody smoking or putting their feet on the seats either. One thing we love about Japanese trains is the bentos (packed meals) . If your train doesn’t have a dining carriage, you’ll still get some seriously appetizing food during your journey – and the prices are reasonable.  

Japan is a supremely civilized country and a rail journey is a pleasure. One thing that most Americans don’t realize is that Japan is not a country of big cities. The Tokyo electronics district of Akihabara and the bright lights of Shibuya epitomize the Western stereotype image of Japan, but not the reality. 70% of Japan is mountains and forests. Cars and satellite dishes aside, visiting rural Japan is like going back in time. A luxury train journey through Japan provides non-stop interest and entertainment – all you have to do is look out of the window. 

Jewish Heritage Tours in Japan

Japan was pretty much closed to foreign influences for centuries and was too remote for easy travel anyway. Even today, the Japanese people reject mass immigration and multiculturalism. Japan is a homogenous society that has protected the core of its traditional culture. There were never major Jewish communities in Japan – but there was never any significant anti-semitism either. During World War Two, Japan largely rejected German demands to persecute its small Jewish communities and Jewish refugees.

Gil Travel’s customized Jewish heritage tours in Japan give you a unique chance to explore the country’s Jewish connections. As you check out the Jewish sites and communities, you can enjoy tailored luxury travel in Japan,  and tour the country, taking in its deeper historical past and modern culture. When you visit modern Japan as a Jew, you’ll receive a friendly welcome – although many Japanese only have quite a vague knowledge of Jews and Judaism. One wonderful thing that happened was spontaneous Japanese support for Israel following the terrible October 7th pogrom. 

Possible itineraries for Jewish heritage tours in Japan  include:

  • A visit to the Tokyo JCJ (Jewish Community of Japan) center. It’s a fascinating place and there may be a chance to meet local Jewish leader Rabbi Andrew Scheer, a graduate of Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion and New York University who also taught English in the Japanese countryside and Sunday School to the Jewish community in Japan. The President of the JCJ is Jonathan Tischler. They have a wealth of local knowledge about Jewish connections and history in Tokyo. 
  • Beit Shalom (Japan Christian Friends of Israel) promotes friendship between Japan and Israel and welcomes Jewish travelers from around the world. Attend a Shabbat concert in Kyoto and hear Japanese Christians singing in Hebrew. It’s a beautiful way to welcome the arrival of Shabbat in one of Japan’s historic cities. 
  • Chabad is active in Japan and welcomes guests to its community centers. The Chabad Rabbi Shmulik Vishedsky is an old friend of Gil Travel and hosts tours of Kobe City’s Old Jewish Synagogue. The Rabbi will also accompany tours of four of the city’s Jewish landmarks. There is a historic Jewish Cemetery just outside town in the wooded Kobe Hills, a synagogue, mikvah and a friendly community center.

There is also a vibrant Chabad presence in Tokyo under the leadership of Rabbi Mendi Sudakevitch, emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Japan, and his wife Chana. If you want to meet other Jews, rest from the bustle of Japan’s capital city, or experience the warmth of a traditional Shabbat, the Chabad offers a friendly welcome and a chance to recharge your spiritual batteries. You can also try some delicious home-style cooking at their kosher restaurant Chana’s Place. 

  • A fascinating tour itinerary is a visit to the Japanese ocean liner “Hikawa Maru”, now a museum ship in Yokohama.  The ship set sail from the port on the 5th of June 1941, for Canada.  Among the passengers were Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. These included the family of Zerah Warhaftig, later Knesset member and Israel Prize laureate.Just six months later, Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor and the voyage would have been impossible.
  • Japan’s eastern port of Hiroshima is a thriving commercial center, but in 1945 it was devastated by a nuclear attack. The city’s Peace Memorial Park attracts visitors from around the world who try to understand the scale of the horror visited upon Hiroshima and its implications for the human race. A particularly poignant feature of the park is the Anne Frank Rose. The beautiful hybrid flower was created in 1955 by the Belgian breeder Hippolyte Delforge, an acquaintance of Anne’s father. The Souvenir d’Anne Frank rose is noted for its transition from red buds to a vivid golden bloom. It bears witness to the brevity of Anne’s life and the beauty of her (unfulfilled) potential.
  • Gil Travel has many contacts among the Jewish community in Japan and with the Japanese business community. We can facilitate meetings with Israeli and Japanese Businesspeople who are already fostering innovative cooperation between Japan and Israel, and who are eager to forge new commercial and cultural links.

A luxury Jewish heritage tour in Japan will be full of surprises and encounters with some really interesting and unusual people. Japanese people are friendly and will put themselves out to help foreign guests find their way around. One of the biggest pleasures for Americans and Europeans is experiencing service standards, respect and courtesy that disappeared in the West at least a generation ago. Gil Travel can work with you, and with its friends and contacts in Japan, to create a customized Jewish heritage tour that you’ll never forget!

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