the Tokyo experience – part 1: masks and melodies

Have we really been in Tokyo or was it just a colourful twinkling dream in one of those short nights full of worries and exhaustion? Back then, more than two years ago, we were stuck in a very difficult situation that didn’t allow us to take the time and process our experiences. We had booked our flight just two days before and as soon as we got back we had other things to worry about. Therefore, I cannot claim to even remotely provide a description of the city. All I can do is to sum up some of my impressions – as surreal, confused and flaring up chaotically as Tokyo threw them at me during that week.


The surgical masks

Oh my god, is there an epidemic? Of course not, and I knew well in advance that in Japan it’s perfectly normal to wear a surgical mask in public. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly unsettling feeling. To my subconscious mind these masks were signalling: hospital, emergency, danger. That’s why the masks actually contributed more to my feeling of being in a strange foreign land than the Japanese characters on the street signs. “I feel like I am at the dentist” Mister Calabria said when we met a mask-man in the elevator for the first time. Allegedly, Japanese people wear those masks in order not to infect others when they are ill. However, if all people wearing a mask were indeed ill, this fact itself would prove the masks to be ineffective as there are just so many of them. I assume some people just wear the mask as a preventive measure. In Japan, having your face shielded behind a mask is as normal as wearing glasses. It doesn’t keep anyone from laughing with their friends or flirting with their sweetheart. If this happened in Berlin you’d probably think that person must have escaped from a hospital. In a study, Scottisch scientists showed that inhabitants of East-Asian countries read other people’s emotions mainly by looking at the eyes, while Westerners pay more attention to the mouth region. That would explain why it doesn’t bother the Japanese to communicate whilst wearing a mask whereas I was always feeling like there was a wall between me and the other person when I had to speak to a service employee wearing a mask.

The sounds

Tokyo is the city of sounds. Music, melodies and mysterious tones accompany every step in this city and add a dreamlike dimension to life. It’s like in a movie where even the most banal scene becomes significant and emotional through the soundtrack. This is one of the reasons why at first Tokyo feels so surreal. The most striking sounds are probably the departure melodies at many underground and train stations. At first I thought the melodies were played so that people don’t miss their stop. Maybe the familiar melody of your own stop could snap you out of your daydreams the same way as when someone says your name in a noisy environment. However, this little idea of mine seems to be wrong as the melodies simply announce the departure of the train. Every station has a distinct melody, or even two melodies for the different directions or lines. My favourite ones are the melancholic melodies of Kamata station. Furthermore, when you’re walking through the stony maze of a train station, you might all of a sudden hear a bird’s tweeting or a cuckoo’s cry. I guess this is a code for the visually impaired as I could hear the tweeting only close to stairs and the cuckoo near escalators. As a little side effect, these nature sounds might help to relax the stressed metropolitans while they’re on their daily rush through the  concrete catacombs. In a similar manner also the sounds of the traffic light are borrowed from nature. Tokyo traffic lights don’t settle for those neutral knocking sounds like the ones in Berlin – no, they chirp like an abandoned chick (sometimes it’s also a cuckooo’s cry). This sound is such steady companion on all the streets that it becomes part of the Tokyo-feeling itself. The most amazing part of Tokyo’s soundscape is without doubt the fact that in the evenings they’re playing music on big loudspeakers in many streets. More about this in the next section. After I had returned from Tokio, the silence in Berlin – especially in the tube – suddenly felt very tangible. When in Berlin, I find this calm very pleasant. Here, I can immerse myself in my thoughts, whereas in Tokyo the outside world is constantly getting into your bones through its sounds and melodies and thus it provides the rhythm of your thoughts. However, it does so very smoothly and is always discreet and gentle. (Except for the noises of the big screens at the Shibuya crossing.  But that’s what the crossing is famous for.)

Here you can get an impression of the typical Tokyo sound:


Continute reading with part 2: crowds and idyll

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