One of the rarest sounds in Japan is quiet: gentle, prolonged, quiet. I don’t get that much. The cars and construction never stop. Public address systems seem to hound my every step, perched on car roofs and hidden in park bushes. The softer sounds, like wind in the trees and the first drops of rain, are muffled by the constant rumble and hum. Just as the neon lights make it impossible to see the stars, the background noise of 37 million people lays like a heavy blanket on the city.
As if anticipating the maddening crowds and cacophony that would come, Buddhist temples long ago carved out niches of tranquility around the country. Here are sounds from two temple gardens.
Gio-ji lies on the outskirts of Kyoto, and is just obscure enough to be deserted on a weekday afternoon. The temple garden glows with green moss and fresh spring leaves on the Japanese maples. Ringing the garden is a dense bamboo grove. The plants sway freely with the wind, knocking each other with a resonant “klunk.” The lovely sound of the wood reminds me why so many cultures make instruments of bamboo. The second temple is a sprawling complex in the seaside town of Kamakura. The frogs in this pond have a great croak: slow and drawn out so you hear each bump in their throats. But even here, wailing sirens and airplanes are nearby to remind us of the world we’ve left behind.
photos by Kelsey Tyssowski
When I have nothing better to do on a Monday, I get on my bike and follow the green lights. Eventually I run out of steam, take my bearings, and pick my way home. One week that moment of reorientation found me at the broad wooden gate of a Buddhist temple, listening to distant music in the shade of a cedar tree. This is how I found Gagaku.
Zozo-ji Temple is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, one of the main schools practiced in Japan. Every year, members of the sect from around the country assemble in Tokyo for their big meet-up. This was the week. The frankfurter and chocolate-covered banana vendors were there, along with packs of monks and kids groups in matching uniforms with sashes and pins like scout troops. In the courtyard before the main hall, a square platform was erected for dance performances: slow, nuanced motions performed by young women in bright red costumes. Accompanying the dancers was an ensemble of about 20 monks who played the heaviest traditional music I have heard in Japan.
Gagaku, or “elegant music,” is a form of sacred music performed only in Buddhist Temples, Shinto Shrines, and the Imperial Court. It originated in Persia and India, and arrived in Japan through China over 1,400 years ago. The core of the ensemble is a group of reed instruments called hichikiri, which play the stately melody that dominates the recording. In the actual performance, their entrance was preceded by a long flute introduction that meandered through an ambiguous tune. The hichikiri melody, brash and focused, was a shock to the ears. The piece suddenly expanded, and took form.
The melody hovers over dense chords played by the sho, a kind of mouth organ with 17 separate bamboo pipes. It looks like a miniature pipe organ wrapped in a circle, with each tube extending a different length. By covering small holes around the edge, the musician can control which notes sound. I asked a monk if it was difficult to play; he said it’s easy, like playing a harmonica. Far from the pleasantly tonal notes of a harmonica, the sho’s tones are dissonant clusters, like a whole box of harmonicas in different keys being played at once. They give the song awesome tension with their always shifting, never resolving chords that drone through the entire piece. I was immediately drawn to the sound. I crouched just behind the group of sho players, soaking in their dense chords and doing my best to shield the microphone from the wind that whipped through the monk’s moss-colored robes.
Two hundred years ago, the sound of chirping birds alerted the Tokugawa shogun that ninjas had infiltrated his castle; today it guides individuals with poor vision along the train platform. In this week’s sound sample from safety conscious Japan: artificial bird sounds across the ages.
In 1601, all of Japan was united under the Tokugawa shogun, who decided to move the nation’s capital to present day Tokyo. At the same time, he also ordered his former rivals in western Japan to build him a castle in the old capital city of Kyoto. The Nijo Castle was completed twenty five years later, and though it was seldom used by the shogun himself, the buildings have survived four centuries in which virtually every other relic of feudal Japan has burned. In addition to walls, moats, gates, and keeps, the castle included an unusual security feature: squeaky floors. Apparently its designers were more concerned about ninja infiltration than a frontal assault. Every floor joint has a metal nail wedged between the boards, so that any pressure produces a whistling chirp. The style was aptly named: “nightingale floors.”
As I tiptoed across the shogun’s residence, I couldn’t help but think of the fake birds that follow me on my morning commute back in the modern capital of Tokyo. At each station, a tiny speaker plays a loop of chirping sounds. The speaker is placed at the foot of the stairs, so people can follow the sound to the exit. Between each chirp is a brief message that gives the station name and platform information Here are the birds of Jimbocho Station, where each night I board the second door of the third car of the 9:29 Mita Line train for Nishi-Takashimadaira. Boy I wish I didn’t have all those details memorized…
The Yaki Imo truck has plied the streets of Tokyo long enough that no one seems to question the wisdom of a wood fired oven crackling in the bed of a mini truck. “Imo” means sweet potato, and “yaki” can describe almost any kind of hot cooking: fried, baked, grilled, or burned. In this case, oversized red sweet potatoes are slowly roasted on coals as the truck putts down side streets, a common sight on cold winter nights. The business is older than the automobile itself, and even the yaki imo song sounds antique, as if the driver has a gramophone perched on the passenger seat. The crackly voice croons:
“Roasted Sweet Potato, Roasted Sweet Potato, Stone-baked Sweet Potato”
In the past year, a new kind of restaurant has taken its message to the streets. To hype the launch of Tokyo’s first “Robot Restaurant,” in which customers can eat while watching bikini-clad women battle in Gundam-style fembots, a fleet of ad trucks has been circling the city. A yellow hummer follows behind each ad truck, towing a trailer with two giant sexy bots on it. My office happens to be on the convoy’s regular afternoon route, overlooking an intersection with a nice long traffic light. Every day around 3 pm the trucks make their round, reminding us once again of the wonders that await at the Robot Restaurant:
“Roboto, Roboto, Re-su-to-rant, Roboto, Roboto, Officially Open!”