Tokyo is a noisy city. Of course you have all the usual sounds you get in any city – traffic, people, rain, occasional sirens. But there are a few uniquely Tokyo sounds.
The 5-o’clock chime
Tokyo doesn’t have (many) Christian churches and bell towers, or mosques with the call to prayer. Shinto and Buddhist temples tend to be quiet places of reflection. But every day, at – usually – 5pm, if you are in one of the 23 special wards of central Tokyo you will hear a distinctive tune, as if from a music box.
The song varies from ward to ward, in my ward Edogawa it is Yuyake Koyake, an instrumental version of a popular early 20th century song (in Edogawa it plays at 5.30pm). Some other wards have the more familiar (to me) bing-bong-bing-bong of Big Ben.
For most people, it signifies that it is time to go home. For me, it reminds me that if I haven’t done all the things I was planning to do today, I’m running out of time. Its true purpose is to test the emergency communication infrastructure so that in the event of a natural disaster public announcements can be made.
There is a website here that explains the chimes and has links to audio clips of the chimes and their sources.
Crows are very common in Tokyo, especially in parks, but sometimes they can make noise in residential areas. Other birds aren’t really so noticeable but wherever there are trees you will hear a noisy racket that sounds like a flock of starlings, and yet when you look in the trees, no birds are there. The responsible critters are cicadas, usually well hidden high in the trees, but loud enough to be heard several trees away. Judging from the volume at certain times of day, under certain trees, there must be thousands of them. On hot days, this can be a continual background noise, out on the streets at least.
I had never seen a cicada in Tokyo until last week when I found a dead one on the steps outside my apartment. Then just yesterday I saw one on the pavement, gingerly moving sideways towards the wall. They are surprisingly large, maybe a little larger than a matchbox.
Large dogs are not very common, Japanese love pets but most Tokyo apartments have strict rules prohibiting them, so they are not a very common sight in the city. Smaller dogs can be seen a big more frequently, cats not so much – in the central parts of the city I guess they are mainly indoor animals. I have seen them when I’ve ventured into the more suburban parts.
Noisy shop assistants? In a country where politeness and customer service are hugely valued characteristics, most businesses insist their staff personally greet every customer they encounter. In supermarkets and shopping malls this is often a normal greeting (I don’t know what they are saying but the last sound always seems to be an extended “waa”, like “kinichi-waaaaaaa”).
In the convenience stores, it’s a different story. Everyone who comes through the door gets a greeting called out to them, quite loudly – and this is then echoed by every other staff member in the shop. Given the continual flow of customers through these shops, and it is like a never-ending melody. Add to that the “bing-bong” that you hear whenever the door opens, and Konbini can be very noisy places.
Supermarkets and malls also have ubiquitous piped music – the one I keep hearing in Sunny Mall is a jazz-instrumental version of “If you’re happy and you know it” but they also do “Auld lang syne” and sometimes mediocre J-pop ballads. Many shops also have little video advertisements on tiny screens strategically placed by certain products – the sounds and the jingles can be charming the first 20 or 30 times you hear them…
I was in the supermarket the other day and one of the assistants was pushing a trolley through a doorway into the storeroom. Before she left the shop floor she turned around and gave a little respectful nod – presumably to the customers. Can you imagine someone doing that in Byker Tesco?
Stations are noisy places of course – you have the trains, the announcements, the “beep” every time someone swipes their card to get through the barriers, the “bing-bong” everytime the door opens in one of the station shops. At my local station they have some extra sounds, weirdly specific. On one platform there is a repeating pattern of birdsong (I thought it was real birds at first until I noticed it just repeated continually), on the other, a repeating cuckoo sound. I presume this is to relax commuters and make them feel like they are in a middle of a peaceful forest instead of crammed like sardines into a fast-moving metal box.
Of course once you are in the trains, it is relatively quiet. People don’t talk. They are more likely to fall asleep than to talk. There are signs asking people not to use their mobile phones – of course people do but only for games or reading manga. The only thing to break the noise of the train moving is the station announcements.
This is a weird, specifically Japanese thing. There are trucks that pull up in heavy-flow commercial areas, and then play a recorded message on loudspeakers. The driver is usually completely disinterested, looking at his or her mobile phone. I don’t understand a word of the messages, but sometimes they seem to be religious (a woman’s voice calmly repeating short messages), and sometimes political (usually a lot more ranty and preachy). They may even be commercial – guerrilla advertising. Sometimes there are clues on the van – adverts or pictures of political candidates, but just as often it’s just a regular unmarked pick-up truck with a pair of speakers on the back.
They are usually static when they play their message, but occasionally you get trucks playing something as they drive around – sometimes including military-style music. Again, I’ve usually no idea what the message is, but they can be very loud and disruptive, not just to people on the street but people working in offices nearby.