NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — It's a Monday evening in late July, and I'm sitting at a communal table in a basement-level bar tucked away on a West Village street. The bar is decently crowded for a weeknight, and the mood is lively and jovial. Nearly everyone has a cocktail in hand and an assortment of small plates, intended to be eaten family-style with the others in their party, in front of them. Together, the inventive Japanese-inspired drink menu and the tantalizing aroma of the food would have been enough to attract business, even on a Monday, but on this particular night, many of the patrons have been drawn to the underground spot to watch the Olympics on a big screen that commands the attention of the modest space.
In New York City, everything feels surprisingly normal, as if I could have placed this evening at any point in time throughout the past decade that I've resided in the city. But on the screen, the slightly unusual sights and sounds of the 2020 Summer Olympics, interspersed among more familiar scenes, are a constant reminder of the global pandemic that continues to pose a threat to humanity well beyond the initial outbreaks.
The year was 1964. 5,151 elite athletes from 93 nations gathered together in Tokyo to compete not only for gold medals around their necks but for the mounting sense of national pride that accompanies each and every win on the global stage.
For the Japanese, the opportunity to showcase their country's accomplishments extended far beyond the feats that could be achieved in the pool or on the track. It was the first time that the Olympics would be held in Asia, nearly two decades after Tokyo had accepted the invitation to host the 1940 Games and then, shortly thereafter, forfeited the role amid the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Through novel technology that enabled the 1964 Games to be telecast internationally, the rest of the world would be able to see clearly that Japan, reemerging at an accelerated pace from the impact of World War II and boasting infrastructure updates along with the likes of a high-speed bullet train connecting Tokyo and Osaka, fully embodied the Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger."
There were also architectural triumphs to be flaunted — the Nippon Budokan, an arena for martial arts that would go on to host the Beatles and other internationally acclaimed artists, and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, a marvel of modern Japanese architecture built to house aquatics and basketball events and lauded for its suspended roof, the largest in the world at the time. These tangible emblems of progress and success would be topped off by the sentimental symbolism of Yoshinori Sakai, an athlete born just hours after the bombing of Hiroshima, igniting the cauldron during the opening ceremonies.
When Tokyo was selected to host the 2020 Summer Olympics in what was regarded as an easy defeat over Istanbul and Madrid, public sentiments took on a similar tone of optimism, with many latching onto the belief that through the power of sports could come great transformation for a city once again in need of renewal. Those old enough to remember the inaugural runs of the gleaming blue-and-white bullet trains, as well as all those who understood the dramatic metamorphosis that Tokyo had undergone as a result of the 1964 Games, saw the 2020 Games as an opportunity for Japan to pole vault into a new era of economic growth and increased tourism.
But last year, Japan's hopes to revitalize a reputation still marred by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011 diverged from the path to success and urban renewal previously taken in 1964.
Instead, there was an unanticipated callback to the country's failed vision of using the 1940 Games to triumphantly climb out of the destruction left by 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake. This time, however, it was not a looming war that threatened the cancellation of the world's greatest sporting event — it was a global pandemic. As the COVID-19 outbreak shrouded the world in uncertainty, there were widespread concerns that the 2020 Summer Olympics would go the way of the “Missing Olympics,” the fitting nickname given to the games that never took place in 1940.
If you've turned on the TV, scrolled through social media, or made small talk with an acquaintance during the past week, you're undoubtedly aware that the 2020 Games have commenced, albeit one year after their original start date. With billions of dollars already invested and plenty more money on the line, a full cancellation was never truly an option. So there was no question that the athletes who had dedicated so much of their lives to rigorous training schedules would eventually have the opportunity, barring positive COVID test results, to showcase their superhuman skills to a global audience. They just wouldn't get to hear any cheers, and they wouldn't get to hug their families immediately afterward.
Just as the financial perspective demanded that the 2020 Games take place even in the enduring presence of COVID-19, the public safety position offered the Olympic organizers no other option but to ban spectators from a majority of the events, leaving only the Japanese cicadas to make their voices heard in support of their favorite teams (so far, they don't appear to be very discerning). Tokyo's moment to shine no longer involves efforts to delight and dazzle those international tourists who traveled there for the games with the marvels of the city. Rather, the global perception of Japan's success now depends on the country's ability to mitigate the spread of the virus during the duration of the Olympics.
Even if your cheers, loud as they may be, will fall short of reaching the ears of the athletes in Tokyo, there are countless ways to cultivate the Olympic spirit from wherever you are in the world. On NBC, clips of family members and friends celebrating the successes of their loved ones from a distance have demonstrated that, as much as COVID has robbed us of over the past year and a half, strong support for the Olympic competitors remains as constant as ever. And in New York City, viewing parties with menus and decor inspired by the host country shows that there's plenty of support to be found for Japanese culture as well.
At the West Village cocktail destination Katana Kitten, named after a samurai sword and the Japanese obsession with cats including, but not limited to, Hello Kitty, the downstairs bar has been transformed into an underground izakaya for the next few weeks in collaboration with Japanese spirit company Iichiko Shochu. As guests sip on shochu-based cocktails and snack on small plates of Japanese-inspired bites while watching the 2020 Games on a sizable screen, they may begin to feel as if they had been able to travel to Tokyo for the festivities after all.
While the prevalence of the extremely contagious Delta variant has stirred up fears of future lockdowns in New York City and beyond, bars and restaurants like Katana Kitten continue to operate in accordance with local regulations to give patrons somewhat of a return to pre-pandemic routines. Pop-up events tied to major happenings like the Olympics further contribute to that sense of normalcy. But if you're not located near a viewing party or would simply prefer to enjoy the games from the safety of your own living room, it's easy to create a festive, Tokyo-inspired atmosphere at home with the help of these tips from the Katana Kitten team.
The decor is a good place to start. If you're looking toward an izakaya for inspiration, a red lantern is an obvious go-to. Izakaya, which can be described on the most basic level as Japanese pubs that attract office workers in the mood for after-work libations and shareable plates, are sometimes called "akachochin" in reference to the paper lanterns that have traditionally been hung outside to mark the taverns as a welcoming spot to have a drink.
In addition to the lanterns, the Katana Kitten team suggests draping banners of international flags from corner to corner in the spirit of global togetherness and solidarity. To further set the scene, you could print out Japanese illustrations to hang on the walls. Once the visual elements are set, you may also choose to offset the drone of the cicadas coming through the TV with your favorite bar tunes in the background. Spotify, always armed with a playlist for any occasion, has your back if you'd like to search for the types of songs that would typically provide the unassuming soundtrack for an evening of lively conversation at an izakaya.
When it comes to food, there are no rigid rules that need to be followed. The average izakaya presents patrons with an extensive number of options, and the offerings from one izakaya to the next can vary considerably. Generally, the menu will read more like a never-ending list of appetizers with nary a main course to be found, such that the family-style method of dining, which calls for a whole roster of small plates to be shared by the table, is regarded as a necessity of the izakaya experience. Throughout the evening, you'll load up your "torizara," referring to the personal dish given to each individual, with savory snacks meant to pair well with alcohol like skewers of chicken grilled over charcoal, edamame, boiled octopus salad, pickled cucumber, and salted cabbage.
Your spread of food for an Olympic viewing party, then, might not look all that different from the snack table on Super Bowl Sunday — just replace the American-style wings with bite-sized Japanese fried chicken.
The first thing that you'll order at an izakaya, though, is a drink.
Locals tend to start with beer, but you're sure to also find sake, given that izakaya are believed to stem from sake shops in the Edo period that invited their customers to drink sake and enjoy a quick bite on the premises. For cocktail fans, highballs are a popular choice, consisting of a carbonated mixer and either Japanese whisky or shochu, a popular Japanese spirit that can be made from upwards of 50 base ingredients but is typically distilled from rice, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, buckwheat, or barley.
In collaborating with Iichiko Shochu, an esteemed Japanese shochu brand that produces only single-distilled, 100% barley spirits, the specialty drink menu for Katana Kitten's Olympic viewing parties focuses on shochu-based cocktails that complement limited-time menu items like a Wagyu hot dog topped with masago wasabi aioli and fish and wonton chips dotted with small mounds of avocado mousse.
For those looking to start their evening with a bit of a palate cleanser, there's the scarlet-colored Meguroni #2, the brainchild of Katana Kitten managing partner and head bartender Masahiro Urushido that riffs on a classic Negroni with updated ingredients. To recreate the cocktail at home, you'll follow a formula that will feel familiar to Negroni fans with slightly less recognizable components. Combine 3/4 oz. Iichiko Saiten, 3/4 oz. Caffo Red Bitter Liqueur, 3/4 oz. Choya Kokuto Umeshu, and 1/4 oz. Genever. Stir, then strain over a large ice cube. Add a twist of lemon and discard the peel. To finish it off, garnish with a kinome leaf.
Or if you're more apprehensive about your mixology skills, try the impossible-to-botch Grapefruit Hai, an Iichiko creation that's built in the glass for minimal chance of missteps. Pour 2 oz. Iichiko Silhouette, and top with Fever-Tree Sparkling Pink Grapefruit. Garnish with a grapefruit slice.
As Olympians hope to set new records during the 2020 Games, Tokyo hit a far less desirable record of its own on Thursday with a high of 3,865 new coronavirus cases. Several other areas have reported a similar surge. These recent spikes, fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, have led Japan to expand the states of emergency across the country through the end of August. On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga implored citizens to avoid congregating in public and instead watch the Olympics from home. In Tokyo, bars have been asked to close early and avoid selling alcohol during the Olympics, an enormous blow to the izakaya that has been struggling since the start of the pandemic.
Certainly, there's no push at the moment to drive tourists to Japan's closed borders. But as Katana Kitten's attempt to transport guests to a Tokyo izakaya, if only for an evening, benefits those who may have planned to travel to the 2020 Olympics during pre-pandemic times, could the transformation of the downstairs bar, along with similar Japanese-inspired Olympic viewing events held at bars and households around the world, also benefit Tokyo in a way that fits the city's original intentions for submitting a bid to host the games?
Perhaps this sort of exposure to aspects of Japanese culture will inspire travelers in search of authentic izakaya experiences to visit the country when it is safe to do so. The Japan National Tourism Organization may have missed its ambitious mark of welcoming 40 million tourists by the end of 2020, but the target of 60 million visitors by 2030 could still be well within reach. And while it's not exactly the retelling of the 1964's success story that Japan had been hoping for, there's still a glass of shochu to be raised, possibly from your living room couch, to the efforts of the athletes competing in the 2020 Games — and in hopes of a brighter future to come.