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.