Jaffa, the 3,500-year-old mystical enclave at Tel Aviv’s southern tip, is one of the oldest ports in the world. From its majestic mosques to its hectic markets, the district offers visitors an instant immersion into the ancient Middle East.
But if you can navigate through the cobblestone alleys and sea-worn breakers, beyond the din of the flea market vendors and the Muslim call to prayer, you can find the quiet side street that houses the Yoko Kitahara spa (HaShahaf 22, Tel Aviv-Yafo; 972-3/605-8339; yokokitahara.com). Here, inside a classic Ottoman home just seconds from the Mediterranean, sits a portal into authentic Japanese hospitality.
“Israel and Japan are as far apart as you can imagine in terms of culture,” says Yoko Kitahara, the eponymous spa’s owner. “With Japanese culture, there is so much focus on quality, to the attention to detail, and that’s what I wanted to bring here.”
It’s true that orderly, Zen-centric Japan couldn’t feel further from chaotic, straight-talking Israel, which might be precisely why Israelis are suddenly flocking to a new crop of Japanese retreats, restaurants, and cultural attractions in Tel Aviv and across the country.
Liran Ben Ami, Kitahara’s Israeli husband, is reminded of the trend every time he introduces a colleague to his wife. “Whenever Israelis learn I am married to a Japanese woman they are impressed because Israelis really look up to Japanese people and Japanese culture,” he says. “We are a people without a culture, because no one really knows exactly what Jewish culture is. And Japan has this pure, untouched culture that has existed for 4,000 years. Israelis respect that.”
The craze has been a long time coming: Since 1959, Israel has been home to the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, which is not only the only art museum in the Middle East dedicated solely to works from the Land of the Rising Sun, but the only museum in Israel dedicated entirely to another nation’s practices of art. And for nearly a decade, Tel Aviv has hung on to its third-in-the-world ranking for number of sushi restaurants per capita (only Tokyo and New York City sit higher on the list). But now, with more Israelis traveling to Japan than ever before and the Japanese Embassy in Israel doubling down on cultural heritage events, the Israeli appetite for Japanese design, fashion, and food has never been heartier.
Israelis have always embraced travel as escapism. In a nation where nearly all citizens are required to conscript in the military, the post-army trek to Asia or South America, where freshly discharged soldiers grow their hair long and embrace their new freedom, is practically de rigueur. But in the past 10 years, as the chaos of the Middle East has seeped across the globe, destinations that once felt peaceful are now as stressful for Israelis as their own home turf. In the wake of that vacuum, it’s Japan—with its dual pillars of order and extreme attention to detail—that has become Israelis’ new haven of choice, and its culture a viable new import. Call it the ultimate opposite that attracts.
Kitahara, a 40-year-old Tokyo native who has lived in Jaffa for six years, saw in the trend an opening to inject her own brand of Japanese tranquility into the haphazard Holy Land. She knew the timing was right: Large Japanese wellness centers were just beginning to crop up across Israel, and in 2013, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (HaShunit St. 4, Herzliya; 972-9/373-5555; www.ritzcarlton.com) in nearby Herzliya launched its own spa in a special collaboration with renowned beauty brand Shisheido. It's the only Ritz-Carlton in the world to partner with Shisheido, and spa manager Adela Mizrahi cites the beauty brand’s precision and attention to detail as exactly what visitors to the luxe hotel, which occupies a prime spot on a marina overlooking the Mediterranean, were craving.
The partnership has been a hit; despite being located outside of the Tel Aviv urban center, the hotel has redefined Israel’s understanding of white-glove service and has become the retreat of choice for visiting celebs, including couple Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel.
The trademark tranquility and excellence of Shisheido’s Japanese treatments was something Kitahara knew she could also offer, but she wanted to create a more personalized, intimate experience. Nineteen months ago, she opened her doors with a call for Israelis to come and “find their inner voice” amid tatami mats and sea-washed air. It’s a place to linger, where the pretreatment tea ritual is as much a part of the afternoon as the massage itself, and its success—her tiny space is routinely booked solid—is a testament to the fact that Israelis, at last, are learning the art of slowing down.
At Yoko Kitahara, guests remove their shoes at the door before partaking in a Japanese tea ceremony and traditional Hinoki wood footbath. Inside whitewashed treatment rooms, therapists hand-selected by Kitahara as much for their skills as for the energy they present to guests combine Hogushi and Nagashi massage and aromatherapy methods before wrapping clients in Imabari cotton towels. Every detail is rooted in omotenashi, the traditional art of Japanese hospitality, which calls for a guest experience to be perfectly balanced and draw upon all five senses. The airy treatment rooms feature Japanese design juxtaposed with original Ottoman stonework, and before and after massages, guests are invited to linger on the sea-view deck and the house’s modern, whitewashed kitchen.
As with most Israeli trends, Tel Aviv is at the epicenter of the movement: Sushi joints are nearly as ubiquitous as falafel stands in the city today, and a staggering 20 percent of maki makers in Tel Aviv are certified kosher. But for real omakase, it used to be that Yakimono (19 Rothschild, Tel Aviv; 972-3/517-5171; yakimono.co.il), the stalwart fine-dining institution that has long served as the gold standard of Japanese cuisine in Israel, was the only name in town. Not so anymore: On the idyllic roof of the five-star Norman (Nakhman 25, Tel Aviv; 972-3/543-5444; thenorman.com) boutique hotel, the first-ever international branch of London mainstay Dinings opened in 2015, bringing electrifying izakaya tapas to Tel Aviv, while just down the road at hotspot TYO (Montefiore 7; 972-3/930-0333; tyo.co.il), global sushi master Yasuto Oyamada (Yama-San) is spending his nights crafting what locals unabashedly declare the best sushi in the city. More competition is in the mix: Tel Aviv hospitality titan Mati Broudo, whose hotel and restaurant empire M&R is one of the nation’s most successful, has his own Japanese izakaya pub in the works for 2017.
“Twenty years ago, Israelis had no idea what sushi was,” says Mika Shuruk, who handles publicity for JASIA, a Japanese kitchen and sushi bar that opened last year just a few blocks from Yoko Kitahara. “Chopsticks are part of our lifestyle now though. If you eat sushi, it’s like you’re in.”
Japanese street food is suddenly as hot as a teppanyaki plate, too: In 2015, famed Israeli chef Yisrael Aharoni opened an always-packed ramen bar at the upmarket Sarona food hall (Kalman Magen 3, Tel Aviv; 972-3/624-2424; saronamarket.co.il), while two blocks away, “Japanese Street Kitchen” Oban Koban (Ha’Arbaah St. 16, Tel Aviv; 972-3/677-6888; obankoban.co.il) serves yakisoba, gyoza, and takoyaki, the fried octopus balls that are the pride of all Osaka, to hungry late-night crowds.
Fans of Japanese homewares are stocking up at Hibino (30 Yavne St., Tel Aviv; 972-3/516-0352; hibino.co.il), a meticulously curated design shop-gallery in Tel Aviv which three years ago launched a capsule fashion boutique, Tomari, inside its light-drenched space. Craftier Israelis are signing up for ancient Japanese calligraphy classes at Shodo (Shvil HaMeretz 6, Tel Aviv), a dedicated Japanese art center in Tel Aviv, and trying their hands at a number of local workshops on Shibori, the Japanese dyeing technique that is an ancestor of modern tie-dye.
For lovers of Japan’s more offbeat fashions, like Harajuku-obsessed Karin Rikon, the community of like-minded fans is also growing.
Rikon, a 26-year-old from the northern Israeli city of Afula, has for years been saving up for her first trip to Japan. In the meantime, she obsessively follows Japanese fashion blogs and Youtube channels, and shops almost exclusively online for Harajuku fashions—the more outrageous the better. Last summer, eager to tap into the community of other Harajuku aficionados across Israel, she and two friends launched the first ever Harajuku Fashion Walk in Tel Aviv. They hoped to attract maybe a dozen other cosplay dressers to parade across the city. To their shock, news of the event spread across social media, and on the day of the walk, some 400 marchers reported for duty in outfits like pinafores with stacked-heel sneakers. Next year’s event, to be held in collaboration with a major Tel Aviv mall again at the end of July, will feature Harajuku and Japan-themed vendors, craft stalls, and live music.
“A Harajuku fashion walk was something that had never happened in Israel—most people here don’t understand what Harajuku fashion is, and when they see me, they ask me if I’m in costume for a play or something,” she says with a laugh. “But Israelis are really fascinated with Japanese because it’s so different from them. The differences in our culture are huge, and people love to be fascinated with what’s different.”
Liran Ben Ami, Kitahara’s Israeli husband, says it makes sense that in a land so steeped in the Bible, respect for Japanese workmanship and culture is catching on. “In Israel you used to not be able to find this kind of perfection and the amount of care that Japanese put into things,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Harajuku girls or a spa experience or the finest lamp in Hibino. They make everything holy.”