I’m always struck by the sounds of Japan.
Of course there is lots to see and smell and taste (!) in Japan but I especially enjoy listening to the sounds around me. When I hear the cheerful melody announcing the train’s arrival to the platform, then I know I have truly arrived in Japan.
I know that sounds might not be everyone’s strongest impression of a place.
People tend to take pictures when they want to record an experience. I have never seen anyone whip out a sound recorder and say, “Hold on! I just want to capture the sounds of this moment for my scrapbook.”
Consider the following question…
Would you rather be blind or deaf?
Having to choose between being deaf or blind, I imagine most people would answer that they would rather be deaf. Vision is too dear to most people.
Indeed humans are highly visual creatures. But let’s not forget our ears!
Given that my spirit animal is the rabbit, I suppose it is no surprise that I love sounds. Sounds keep us safe by warning us of approaching danger. Sounds let us communicate using spoken language. Sounds entertain and delight. I love hearing the laughter coaxed from my grandmother by a funny story.
Bunny at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.
Sounds can also help us understand life in another culture.
When I visited Kenya, a noisy caravan of cars came down the road. There was shouting and whistling and banging on drums. My friend explained that it was a funeral procession. In that part of Kenya, bigger and louder funerals give more honor to the deceased.
The market in the nearby town from where my friend was living…
The noisy funeral was strikingly different from the funerals I have attended in the U.S., where we spoke in respectfully hushed voices. Listening to the music, language, and ambient sounds of a new place has taught me a lot about different cultures.
My friend’s kitchen in Kenya. No sounds of running water here…
In Japan, I have encountered many unfamiliar sounds. Like a rabbit, I keep my ears up and listening. Here are 10 Japanese sounds that you will not hear in the United States.
Super polite trucks
Did you know? Trucks in Japan talk.
In the United States, trucks beep when they are backing up. But trucks in Japan are even more polite and considerate. Japanese trucks will notify you, “Careful! I am turning right.” or “Careful! I am turning left.” As they back up, an automated message plays, “I am backing up.”
These motorized vehicles in the Tsukiji Fish Market zoom around with no warnings!
Sure, at times it feels excessive. When the truck is slowly backing down the street announcing, “I am backing up. I am backing up. I am backing up. I am backing up” over and over, I do wonder if once or twice would be enough.
When riding my bike in the narrow streets of Japan though, I certainly appreciate the verbal warnings from the trucks.
Shouts of “WELCOME!” when you enter a store
A common sound you will definitely hear in Japan is the word “irrashaimase.” It is usually shouted loudly and often in unison by employees when you enter a store or restaurant. The word means, “welcome.”
The first time I visited Japan, I did not know how to respond to this greeting. Often the loud shouts startled me. I did not know if I should say something in return, or if I should acknowledge their greeting with a head nod. Sometimes it was shouted not just once, but several times as I walked around the store and encountered other employees.
Walk through the curtain and you are guaranteed a shout of “Welcome!”
At the time, I looked around and no one seemed to be acknowledging the shouts, so I kept quiet. Now I know that there is no need to respond. You can simply appreciate the warm welcome and go about your business.
The go home bell
At 5pm in Japan, music plays over loud speakers. It plays loudly for 20-30 seconds.
Here is a recording of the bells in Tokyo.
The bells sound slightly different, depending on the neighborhood. Also, depending on the season, the time varies with 5pm bells in the winter and 6pm bells in the summer as the days get longer. In addition, some towns have a second broadcast at noon.
Not this kind of bell… a HUGE bronze bell at a temple near Kyoto.
Unofficially, my friends explained to me that the bell serves as a reminder for children to head home. Officially, it is a test of a nationwide system that can transmit warnings throughout Japan in as little as seven seconds.
(Ooops! #4 seems to have gone missing… “4” is actually bad luck in Japan. The word for 4 sounds like the verb for die. If you are a guest to a wedding, it is better not to bring a gift of $400 for the couple. Better to bring $300 or $500. So just like some American buildings have no 13th floor, this blog post has no #4!)
If you visit a traditional inn (or ryokan) in Japan, you might have a chance to wear wooden shoes called “geta.” Just listen to the interesting sounds these shoes make!
The shoes are basically a wooden flip-flop, with a hard wooden platform and woven straps balanced on two wooden platforms. I am still getting the hang of these shoes. Walking gracefully without tripping is hard…
Super silent train car
The super silent train car isn’t about a sound you hear in Japan but instead the incredible lack of sound you will encounter in the train.
Imagine an empty train car. Now imagine a train car packed with hundreds of people. In Japan, these train cars would sound exactly the same. Seriously.
So quiet… Whether there are 2 people or 200.
Train cars in Japan are so quiet – no chatting, no talking on the phone, no loud music leaking from headphones – even the train itself makes hardly any noise. When I merely whisper on trains in Japan, I feel conspicuous.
The contrast between hyper-silent train cars in Japan versus the United States became clear to me when I visited New York City. The New York city train system is bursting with life and sound. The train cars rumble and groan. Passengers actually talk to each other! Musicians on the platforms perform music. One time riding the subway with my brother, two men boarded the train. One guy started playing music on the boom box he was carrying, while the other started this trick routine, hanging like a monkey from the metal handrails on the ceiling.
You certainly will find extremely noisy places in Japan (try walking into a pachinko parlor) but the train is not one of those places.
Shouting “EXCUSE ME!” in restaurants
Want to order more food? Or request your check?
If you are in Japan, you can loudly shout “EXCUSE ME!” (“sumimasen” in Japanese) to call the staff to your table.
When I first arrived to Japan, I felt too shy to shout. It seemed rude. Instead I would wait hoping that a server would eventually visit my table. Sometimes they did. And sometimes they didn’t.
Want to order some clam soup? Then it is okay to shout so.
Now I am used to it, and actually I appreciate the efficiency of being able to shout anytime I like. In some restaurants, there is even an electronic call button to summon staff to your table. K also finds the American practice of trying to “catch the server’s eye” to be much harder and more inconvenient than shouting.
So if you are headed to Japan, get ready to shout! (But not in the trains. See #6.)
In some ways, Japan is quite bike friendly – there are bike racks in front of stores. There are large bike parking areas outside train stations. Lots of people use bikes to commute to work and school, and to run errands around town.
Bicycle parking by the train station.
But one way that Japan is not very bike friendly is the structure of the streets. The sidewalks are often narrow and the streets can be even more narrow. So it is important to warn people that you are coming on your bicycle.
One trip to Japan, I rented a bicycle and rode to a wasabi farm. Notice the hand drawn map and the bell!
When riding my bike in the U.S., I am more likely to announce, “On your right!” as I pass a pedestrian. In Japan though, a gentle ring of your bicycle bell will clear the sidewalk in front of you.
I have also experienced people in Japan use the clicking back-pedaling sound to warn me that they are behind me. This sound is even quieter than a polite bell ring, and requires a great deal of vigilance.
A spider took up residence in my bike basket!
Living in Japan, I was mostly oblivious to these signs, realizing much too late that bicyclists were backing up on the sidewalk behind me. I developed the habit of walking very close to the edge of the sidewalk, leaving as much space as possible for bicyclists to pass.
Another case of noisy truck syndrome!
In Japan, political candidates often campaign in densely populated city areas by riding around on trucks equipped with speakers announcing their political message. The trucks are sometimes stationed near a busy street intersection and the politicians stand on top of the trucks.
(Image Credit: Wikipedia.)
Looking at the trucks, I have always wondered why candidates choose trucks over television. Maybe being physically present to broadcast your message is more effective than broadcasting virtually.
Either way, I cannot vote in Japan, so I mostly ignore these trucks.
When the rice cooker finishes its job, it sings a little song to let you know that your rice is ready to eat. My bathtub also played a tune to inform me that the water had finished filling and was waiting for me.
BONUS – More sounds!
Here is a spliced audio recording that I made of a bunch of sounds in Japan from a trip there several summers ago. Enjoy!
Thanks for reading! Have you heard any interesting sounds in your travels? Let me know!
Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.