While your travel plans may be put on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Home Around the World invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture from the comfort of your home.
A few years ago, I walked through Tokyo’s neon-lit streets for the first time with wide eyes and jet lag. It only took us three days to learn some of the city’s secrets. For example, if you can’t find the perfect noodle shop for lunch, take a look and you’ll see another dozen options that fill the upper floors of what you think office buildings are. Or that famous places – like Shibuya Crossing, the intersection you saw in 100 time-lapses – are famous for a reason, but there’s a lot more to learn if you randomly pick a subway station and take a long walk do.
This should be a big year for the city’s tourism – already one of the most visited in the world – as the now postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games were to take place here. Of course that didn’t happen.
With most of the world still confined to their homes, this Tokyo trip will have to wait for the millions of people who have canceled flights and hotel bookings. In the meantime, there are ways to capture the spirit of a city that is sometimes impenetrable, always fascinating. These recommendations may even make you feel like you are there for one night.
Hear the city
On my first night in Tokyo, I first met Kazuto Okawa, who goes by the name LLLL, outside a supermarket in the quirky Koenji neighborhood. He was sitting on a curb with a group of friends, his face hidden by long, disheveled hair. Over the years since that first encounter, his music – a mix of sugary pop hooks and soundscapes from the space age – has become synonymous with the city for me. If these contradicting feelings of disorientation and joy that strike every visitor to Tokyo could be translated into sound, this would be the place to be.
When I asked Okawa-san what music best captured his hometown, he referred me to the classics. The musician Keigo Oyamada, better known as Cornelius, is sometimes referred to reductively as the “Japanese Beck” because he easily switches between genres. Every album is a journey, but for the most impressive in town, Mr. Okawa suggests his 1995 album “69/96”. “It’s forever futuristic,” he said. “A perfect complement to Tokyo.”
If Cornelius is too much out there for you, Mr. Okawa recommends “Kazemachi Roman” by Tokyo’s folk-rock pioneers Happy End: You may recognize a song from the soundtrack to that great tribute to Tokyo, “Lost in Translation”.
To understand the phenomenon of the J-Pop scene in Tokyo, Mr. Okawa begins with Sheena Ringo’s “Kabukicho no joou”. “It captures the dark side of the city,” he said. “And it happens to be one of the most popular J-Pop songs of all time.” For the flip side of the same pop coin – maybe it’s a livelier summer night you want to recreate – he recommends Taeko Ohnuki’s aptly titled “Sunshower”.
Cooking at the dining table
No trip to Tokyo is complete without plenty of food. While it may be difficult to exactly recreate a real Tokyo bowl of ramen or a plate of sushi, there is plenty you can do from home.
Head to New York Times Cooking for a variety of quick and easy dishes, from yakitori (yes, you can really make it at home) to nori chips (perfect with a cold Japanese lager).
Follow Motoko Rich, the head of the Times’s Tokyo office, for something more complicated and seasonally appropriate. “When the weather gets cooler, it’s time to break out the butane burner for Shabu Shabu, a classic Japanese dinner that you can prepare and eat right at the table,” she said.
Make a kombu dashi, a broth flavored with dried seaweed, first, then take beef, tofu, vegetables, and mushrooms and dip them in the bubbly liquid. Make sure you stir in the ingredients until they are cooked through. “Although we can cook shabu shabu at home, it also reminds me of fancier restaurants from mid-20th century Tokyo, where the waiters wear kimonos and bring royal platters to the tables.” Ms. Rich recommends this recipe from Just One Cookbook.
Broaden your literary horizons
If you’re looking to get lost in Tokyo by curling yourself up with a good book, we have plenty of recommendations whether it’s a long fiction you’re looking for or more snack short stories. There is more – much more – than Haruki Murakami. Ms. Rich recommends “Breasts and Eggs” by Mieko Kawakami. “I like the way Kawakami refers to real and recognizable, but not exotic, places in Tokyo,” she said. “You feel informed when you read it instead of being introduced to another precious world. It’s Tokyo the way it is lived, not a film set. “
See the city on the screen
If you’re looking for an evening of television and subtitles, start with the binge-worthy Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories on Netflix. The show is about customers walking through a tiny counter-service restaurant that is only open from midnight to 6 a.m. Alternating heartwarming, hilarious and melancholy, it is a moving portrait of Tokyo after dark. If you aren’t feeling great in the opening title sequence, check your pulse: it’s ASMR for the soul.
When it comes to movies, Mike Hale, a television reviewer for The Times said, “Tokyo is the most cosmopolitan and intense city imaginable, and that’s a perfect combination for storytelling, as directors from Kurosawa to Kiarostami Sofia Coppola showed it. “
Then where do I start? Akira Kurosawa, the influential filmmaker whose career spanned nearly six decades, cannot be skipped. Mr. Hale recommends “Stray Dog” (1949), which was filmed in Tokyo after World War II. He describes it as “a city tour in mere survival mode”. Next, try “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) by Seijun Suzuki. “Suzuki’s stylized yakuza story puts traditional themes like honor and corruption against a jazzy, jagged, surrealistic distillation of the fast-changing city,” he said. Finally, for something more contemporary, check out Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” (2018), which won the Cannes Palm d’Or. According to Mr. Hale, the film about a family of Griftern shows “both the glittering modern metropolis and the shadowy world directly behind the neon”.
Lose yourself in the virtual world
While Japan’s most internationally recognized video game character may be an Italian plumber with a penchant for mushrooms, there are also plenty of games more rooted in real Tokyo than Super Mario Bros. Brian Ashcraft, an Osaka-based senior writer on the Kotaku gaming website, recommends the expansive “Yakuza” series that Kazuma Kiryu follows as he makes a name for himself in the underworld. The yakuza games are full of action, but with dance battles, karaoke sessions, and laughing dialogues, they’re also blatantly silly. “This year has resulted in all events and trips to Tokyo being canned,” said Ashcraft. “The Yakuza games do a fantastic job of bringing parts of the city to life. These obsessive, digital replicas mimick the idea of Tokyo. For me that’s good enough. “