The world was looking rosy for travel video websites based in Japan at the beginning of the year. The country was in the final stages of counting down to the Olympics and Paralympics, and overseas interest in Japan was continuing to register strong growth.
A few months later, the landscape has changed completely.
Tokyo Street View is a case in point. In late February, the website had attracted interest from the Japan National Tourism Organization, according to its creator, Gonzague Gay-Bouchery.
Gay-Bouchery was traveling in Kansai at the time, keeping tabs on the emergence of the new coronavirus outbreak that was starting to spread in China. He was uploading new travel videos at regular intervals every few days or so.
However, Gay-Bouchery was forced to suspend the project once the virus was confirmed to have been found in Japan and, a little more than a month later, he uploaded his most recent video of cherry blossoms in Saitama’s Gongendo Park on YouTube at the beginning of April. Since then, nothing.
“As far as new content (is concerned) … I don’t know,” Gay-Bouchery says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to Tokyo Street View. I’m just waiting to see where this goes.”
In the meantime, though, Tokyo Street View has become one of several Japan-centric channels offering an escape to those stuck at home due to the pandemic. Alongside similar sites such as Nippon Wandering TV and Rambalac, it has become a place for those around the world seeking some digital respite during unusual times, something reflected by higher page views than normal, Gay-Bouchery says.
“Beautiful! Thanks for letting me forget about this present reality for a moment,” one person notes in a comment on a Tokyo Street View video that captures cherry blossoms in bloom next to Onnahori River in Saitama Prefecture. It’s a common online sentiment that has been observed during the COVID-19 crisis.
Such YouTube channels — and not forgetting glossier offerings such as the Twitter account @AestheticsJapan — have always allowed users anywhere in the world with an internet connection the chance to wander through iconic Japanese destinations such as Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood or Osaka’s Dotonbori district. Plenty of similar clips from other countries also populate YouTube but, as is often the case with content relating to Japan, these uploads typically get a little more attention owing to a combination of the country’s allure and the “exoticization” of it.
As COVID-19 has disrupted regular life and has forced millions around the world to stay at home, new forms of escape from the barrage of negativity on the news have emerged. They have run from gamers jumping into the Technicolor world of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” to Netflix subscribers binging on “Tiger King.”
Slice-of-life videos from Japan aren’t quite at the same level, but they have still attracted a following, including a report from a Canadian reporter who had to cancel his trip because of the virus situation and, therefore, put together a dispatch on walks around Tokyo and Yokohama based on what he found online.
Such channels can also be pure therapy during this stressful time — for me personally, Nippon Wandering TV and Tokyo Street View have provided an opportunity to explore the capital at a time when acting on the desire to roam is impossible. Comments on videos echo this feeling, with some fantasizing of a trip to Japan in a post-coronavirus world or simply happy to see neon-drenched streets while cooped up.
“I know people who are putting these videos into their houses, like instead of a fireplace video, they put one of our videos on,” Gay-Bouchery says. “It’s like background noise or a visual thing to have on.”
Yet, these channels haven’t just become everyday screensavers. Nippon Wandering TV is still managing to produce new videos, many of which find the channel documenting life in Tokyo in the days that have followed the state of emergency declaration. While trusting any single source on how denizens of the capital are behaving during this time is tough, Nippon Wandering TV has done a better job than most by sharing videos comparing what major neighborhoods have been like in recent times to the present day.
Gay-Bouchery isn’t quite so keen to go in that direction.
“I felt guilty, to be honest,” he says, describing his feelings on filming his last video in Saitama Prefecture and noting that he went out wearing a face mask and paid attention to social distancing recommendations. “I may bring something … I don’t know and people don’t really know what’s going on.”
A few comments have even touched on concerns about him filming during the pandemic, although for now he’s choosing to brush these off.
What will happen to his channel remains to be seen but, for the moment, Tokyo Street View offers anyone in Japan or beyond the chance to get outside a bit and explore the country’s streets without having to worry about getting too close to anybody else.
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