Sendai, JAPAN — Hang a right off of the bustling pedestrian mall that cuts through central Sendai, the largest city in northern Japan’s Tohoku prefecture and an oasis of commerce and calm in this still tsunami-ravaged region, and you’ll find yourself amid the shadows and pulsing lights of the town’s de facto red-light district.
Here, under signs for the hostess clubs known as “snack bars” and amid the teetering, alcohol-drenched salary men who pack these alleys come nightfall, you’ll find a small sign for Middle Mix, a most surprising oasis of Israel deep in the land of the rising sun.
Middle Mix, which bills itself not as an Israeli bar but as a Middle Eastern restaurant, watering hole and gathering place, is the brainchild of Roy Somech, who for many years has had the distinction of being the only Israeli in Sendai. Somech, 32, has been in Japan for eight years, and running Middle Mix for four. When he opened the bar, Somech says, the city was packed with izakayas (Japanese drinking establishments), video game arcades and noodle shops, but not a single place where you could get a taste of the Middle East. He wanted to change that.
“Our first goal here is to explain that the Middle East is not about war,” Somech says of his vision for his customers. “We have nice culture, nice food, nice music – everything is good with us. You know, come visit. We will show you how much fun we are.”
Middle Mix is reached by descending a steep flight of stairs, after which one emerges into a red-lit basement wallpapered with Israeli newspaper advertisements, flags from Turkey and Greece, and travel posters for Jerusalem. Two flat-screen televisions show Israeli programs, complete with Hebrew subtitles, and the bar is stocked with Arak and hookah pipes in addition to vodka and Japanese whiskey. A few times a year, Somech sends his Japanese staff to visit different Middle Eastern countries, including Cyprus, Lebanon and Jordan, to get a better understanding of the image the bar is presenting.
“For me it’s not enough to look on the Internet to study culture,” he says as we slurp soba noodles at a shop down the street. “You have to go there, and feel what people think. Understand them. And then you can make the real food.”
Middle Mix opens for dinner at six p.m., serving all sorts of Middle Eastern favorites including kebabs, jachnun and labneh, often with belly dancing and music. After the dinner crowds thin out, the drinkers filter in, with dozens of Japanese locals, who know to say todah and bevakasha when placing their orders, packing the long bar and surrounding tables. On an average night, you might find red-cheeked backpackers, Turkish ex-pats, a Hebrew-speaking Japanese Jew and a Japanese-speaking Chicagoan among the crowd.
Somech, who is married to a Japanese woman he calls “the reason for my existence,” has learned fluent Japanese in his eight years here, but he can’t read or write in the difficult alphabet. His wife has learned to read and write Hebrew, and has traveled to Israel several times. She and his staff help him with tasks like hand-writing the menu for the day and managing forms and paperwork. The staff’s impression of Israel, he says, has changed by working at the bar, as has the impression of the many Sendai residents who have become regulars.
“A lot of people go to visit [the Middle East] after coming here,” he says. “They get a taste of it, and then they want to go see for themselves.”
Somech’s journey to his place behind the bar involved a lot of twists and turns. Raised in Gan Yavne, a central Israeli town next to Ashdod, he ended up in boarding school in Herzliya and at 14 began studying to become a pastry chef. After a stint in the army loading bombs onto F-16s, he was desperate to travel and began a genuine worldwide odyssey, repeatedly blowing his money on plane tickets to destinations like Laos or India, replenishing his funds working in pastry kitchens in Europe, and then repeating the cycle again.
He ended up in Japan after spending his last few pennies in Thailand and Australia, and started working in what he calls a “basta,” which is Israeli slang for the carts in open-air markets that any world traveler will instantly recognize as packed with post-army Israelis eager to sell questionable hand creams and watches.
He spotted the woman who would become his wife walking on the street a month later, courted and married her less than a month after that, and began scrimping to save up enough of his earnings for a down payment on a restaurant space.
Middle Mix opened in 2010. Nine months later, with business steady, Somech’s marriage thriving and life in Japan feeling almost blissfully settled for him, he set out of his house one afternoon only to feel the earth shake beneath him.
It was March 11, 2011, and the most powerful earthquake to have ever hit Japan, a mind-numbing 9.0 on the Richter Scale, had just released its megathrust. In the hours that followed, nearby cities would be entirely swallowed by tsunami waves, changing the face of northern Japan forever. Somech’s bar was shut down for lack of gas and power.
Desperate to stay busy and help those around him, he teamed up with Chabad of Tokyo and launched a classic Israeli combina, or arrangement, connecting a fellow pastry chef friend with a flour exporter in Osaka and baking bread by the thousands of loaves to distribute for the hungry. When Israeli aid workers would fly into the country in the days following the disaster and need an introduction to begin their long-term work in the country, it would be Roy – introduced to the team by a Japanese customer who was happy to connect one Israeli to another – who would serve as a fixer.
These days he’s back to slinging drinks, polishing his Japanese and handling the hiring, firing, cleaning, managing and sweating that comes with owning a restaurant. And while he says his work is by no means political, he’s happy that he’s showing a fresh face of the Middle East to the Japanese of the Tohoku region. “Because of the existence of a place like this, thanks to our place in Sendai, the opinion has been completely changed,” he says. “It’s because of this place.”