Mental health professionals are going viral on the app, captivating an anxious generation.
While your travel plans may be on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Around the World at Home invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture, all from the comfort of your home.
A few years ago, I walked through Tokyo’s neon-lit streets for the first time, wide-eyed and jet-lagged. It only took three days to learn some of the city’s secrets. If you can’t find the perfect noodle shop for lunch, for example, look up and you will see another dozen options, filling the upper floors of what you thought were office buildings. Or that famous places — like Shibuya Crossing, the intersection you’ve seen in 100 timelapses — are famous for a reason, but there’s so much more to learn by picking a metro stop at random and going for a long walk.
This was supposed to be a big year for tourism for the city — already one of the world’s most visited — as it was set to host the now postponed Olympics and Paralympic Games. That, of course, did not happen.
With most of the world still confined to their homes, that Tokyo trip will have to wait for the millions of people who canceled flights and hotel bookings. In the meantime, there are ways to capture the spirit of a sometimes impenetrable, always fascinating, city. Perhaps, just for a night, these recommendations might even make you feel like you are there.
Hear the city
I first met Kazuto Okawa, who performs under the name LLLL, outside a convenience store in the quirky neighborhood of Koenji on my first night in Tokyo. He was sitting on a curb in a circle of friends, his face obscured by long, disheveled hair. Over the years since that first encounter, his music — a blend of sugary pop hooks and space-age soundscapes — has become synonymous with the city for me. If those conflicting feelings of disorientation and joy that hit every visitor to Tokyo could be translated to sound, this would be it.
When I asked Mr. Okawa what music best captures his home city, he directed me to the classics. The musician Keigo Oyamada, better known as Cornelius, is sometimes reductively called the “Japanese Beck” for the way he swoops between genres with ease. Every album is a journey, but for the most evocative of the city, Mr. Okawa suggests his 1995 album “69/96.” “It’s forever futuristic,” he said. “A perfect match to Tokyo.”
If Cornelius is too out there for you, Mr. Okawa recommends “Kazemachi Roman” by Tokyo folk rock pioneers Happy End: you may recognize a song from the soundtrack to that great tribute to Tokyo, “Lost in Translation.”
To begin understanding the phenomenon that is Tokyo’s J-pop scene, Mr. Okawa says to start 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 — perhaps it’s a more lively summer night you are trying to recreate — he recommends Taeko Ohnuki’s aptly titled “Sunshower.”
Cook at the dinner table
No trip to Tokyo is complete without a whole lot of eating. While it may be hard to accurately recreate a bona fide Tokyo bowl of ramen or plate of sushi, there is plenty that you can do from home.
For something more involved, and seasonally appropriate, follow the lead of Motoko Rich, The Times’ Tokyo bureau chief. “With the weather getting cooler, it’s time to break out the butane burner for shabu shabu, a classic Japanese dinner that you can make and eat right at the table,” she said.
First, make a kombu dashi, a broth flavored with dried kelp, then take beef, tofu, vegetables and mushrooms and dip them into the bubbling liquid, making sure to swirl in the ingredients long enough that they cook through. “Although we can cook shabu shabu at home, it also reminds me of fancier mid-20th century-era restaurants in Tokyo, where the servers wear kimonos and carry regal platters to the tables.” Ms. Rich recommends this recipe from Just One Cookbook.
Expand your literary horizons
If you want to lose yourself in Tokyo by curling up with a good book, we have plenty of recommendations, whether it is a long work of fiction you are after or more snackable short stories. There is more — a lot more — than Haruki Murakami. Ms. Rich recommends “Breasts and Eggs” by Mieko Kawakami. “I love the way Kawakami references real and recognizable, but not exoticized, Tokyo locations,” she said. “You feel in the know, reading it, rather than as if you are being introduced to a precious Other World. It is Tokyo as it is lived in, not a film set.”
See the city on the screen
If an evening of TV and subtitles is what you are after, start with the binge-worthy “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” on Netflix. The show is about the customers who pass through a tiny counter-service restaurant that is only open from midnight to 6. At turns heartwarming, hilarious and melancholic, it is a moving portrait of Tokyo after dark. If the opening title sequence doesn’t make you feel good, check your pulse: it is ASMR for the soul.
When it comes to movies, as Mike Hale, a Times’ television critic, said, “Tokyo is simultaneously the most cosmopolitan and the most intensely local city you can imagine, and that’s a perfect combination for storytelling, as directors from Kurosawa to Kiarostami to Sofia Coppola have shown.”
Where to start then? You can’t skip Akira Kurosawa, the influential filmmaker whose career spanned almost six decades. Mr. Hale recommends “Stray Dog” (1949), shot in Tokyo in the aftermath of World War II. He describes it as “a walking tour of the city in sheer survival mode.” Next, try “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) by Seijun Suzuki. “Suzuki’s stylized yakuza story sets traditional themes of honor and corruption against a jazzy, jagged, surrealist distillation of the rapidly changing city,” he said. Finally, for something more contemporary, watch the Cannes Palm d’Or-winning “Shoplifters” (2018) by Hirokazu Kore-eda. In Mr. Hale’s view, the film, about a family of grifters, “shows both the glittering modern metropolis and the shadow world just beyond the neon.”
Get lost in the virtual world
While Japan’s most internationally famous video gaming figure may be an Italian plumber with a taste for mushrooms, there are also plenty of games more grounded in real-life Tokyo than Super Mario Bros. Brian Ashcraft, an Osaka-based senior writer at the gaming website Kotaku, recommends the expansive “Yakuza” series, which follows Kazuma Kiryu as he makes his name in the underworld. The Yakuza games are action-packed, but with dance battles, karaoke sessions and laugh-out-loud dialogue, they are also unabashedly silly. “This year has resulted in all events and trips to Tokyo being canned,” Mr. Ashcraft said. “The Yakuza games do a fantastic job of bringing parts of the city to life. These obsessive, digital recreations mimic the idea of Tokyo. For me, that’s good enough.”
When is enough enough?
Even though the presidential election is over, we’re still doomscrolling through gloomy news about the coronavirus surge. The rest of your daily routine is probably something like mine while stuck at home in the pandemic: Divided among streaming movies on Netflix, watching home improvement videos on YouTube and playing video games. All of these activities involve staring at a screen.
There has to be more to life than this. With the holiday season upon us, now is a good time to take a breather and consider a digital detox.
No, that doesn’t mean quitting the internet cold turkey. No one would expect that from us right now. Think of it as going on a diet and replacing bad habits with healthier ones to give our weary eyes some much needed downtime from tech.
“There’s lots of great things to do online, but moderation is often the best rule for life, and it’s no different when it comes to screens,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen,” a book about younger generations growing up in the smartphone era.
Too much screen time can take a toll on our mental health, depriving us of sleep and more productive tasks, experts said. I, for one, am experiencing this. Before the pandemic, my average daily screen time on my phone was three and a half hours. Over the last eight months, that has nearly doubled.
So I turned to psychology experts for their advice. From setting limits to finding alternatives to being glued to our phones, here’s what we can do.
Come Up With a Plan
Not all screen time is bad — after all, many students are attending school via videoconferencing apps. So Step One is assessing which parts of screen time feel toxic and make you unhappy. That could be reading the news or scrolling through Twitter and Facebook. Step Two is creating a realistic plan to minimize consumption of the bad stuff.
You could set modest goals, such as a time limit of 20 minutes a day for reading news on weekends. If that feels doable, shorten the time limit and make it a daily goal. Repetition will help you form new habits.
That’s easier said than done. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and co-author of the book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” recommended creating calendar events for just about everything, including browsing the web and taking breaks. This helps create structure.
For example, you could block off 8 a.m. to read the news for 10 minutes, and 20 minutes from 1 p.m. for riding the exercise bike. If you feel tempted to pick up your phone during your exercise break, you would be aware that any screen time would be violating the time you dedicated to exercise.
Most important, treat screen time as if it were a piece of candy that you occasionally allow yourself to indulge. Don’t think of it as taking a break as that may do the opposite of relaxing you.
“Not all breaks are created equal,” Dr. Gazzaley said. “If you take a break and go into social media or a news program, it can get hard to get out of that rabbit hole.”
Create No-Phone Zones
We need to recharge our phones overnight, but that doesn’t mean the devices need to be next to us while we sleep. Many studies have shown that people who keep phones in their bedrooms sleep more poorly, according to Dr. Twenge.
Smartphones are harmful to our slumber in many ways. The blue light from screens can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, and some content we consume — especially news — can be psychologically stimulating and keep us awake. So it’s best not to look at phones within an hour before bed. What’s more, the phone’s proximity could tempt you to wake up and check it in the middle of the night.
“My No. 1 piece of advice is no phones in the bedroom overnight — this is for adults and teens,” Dr. Twenge said. “Have a charging station outside the bedroom.”
Outside of our bedrooms, we can create other No-Phone Zones. The dinner table, for example, is a prime opportunity for families to agree to put phones away for at least 30 minutes and reconnect.
Resist the Hooks
Tech products have designed many mechanisms to keep us glued to our screens. Facebook and Twitter, for example, made their timelines so that you could scroll endlessly through updates, maximizing the amount of time you spend on their sites.
Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of the book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” said that tech companies employed techniques in behavioral psychology that make us addicted to their products.
He highlighted two major hooks:
Artificial goals. Similar to video games, social media sites create goals to keep users engaged. Those include the number of likes and followers we accrue on Facebook or Twitter. The problem? The goals are never fulfilled.
Friction-free media. YouTube automatically plays the next recommended video, not to mention the never-ending Facebook and Twitter scrolling. “Before there was a natural end to every experience,” like reading the last page of a book, he said. “One of the biggest things tech companies have done was to remove stopping cues.”
What to do? For starters, we can resist the hooks by making our phones less intrusive. Turn off notifications for all apps except those that are essential for work and keeping in touch with people you care about. If you feel strongly addicted, take an extreme measure and turn the phone to grayscale mode, Dr. Alter said.
There’s also a simpler exercise. We can remind ourselves that outside of work, a lot of what we do online doesn’t matter, and it’s time that can be better spent elsewhere.
“The difference between getting 10 likes and 20 likes, it’s all just meaningless,” Dr. Alter said.