Sunday, 5 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part VI: Soundscapes

Usually I have a specific music to go with a vacation. It is the music I listened to while I was there and it linked itself inseparably with the place. The alien landscape of Bryce Canyon or Joshua Tree NP will never be the same without The Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel), Brazil is forever tied to the Fugees (OohLaLaLa!) and Amy McDonald makes me want to put my feet up on the dashboard as we cruise along Highway 101 down the California coast.Japan does not have a specific soundtrack to me. We were backpacking so there was no car stereo and anyway I noticed that I constantly and actively used all my senses while I was there, not to miss a single thing. My ipod must have felt sorely neglected.

An advantage of soundtrackless traveling is that local sounds and musics have more access to the mind. The shops and department stores use general internationally marketed music, with a preference for ‘soft’ western-style music like gentle soul (I heard Rotterdam heroine Giovanca in trendy LOFT department store!) or non-offensive jazz like Billy Holiday. And yes, in hip youth culture shops expect some J-Pop although not as much as you might expect. And on the boat in Hagi we heard Japanese folk songs through the speakers. Very pleasant.

The most memorable musics I heard in Japan, I heard in temples and shrines. It was played during rituals and not performed for an audience, at least not a secular one. Usually the rituals (and music making) took place in the inner sanctum of the shrines and while you can certainly peek inside through the opening in front of the central altar, it was not something we did often during rituals. There is something private about those and it seems inappropriate for non-believers to just lean in to have a look at those drums. Even (especially?) when they are ethnomusicologists.

The good thing about music is that you don’t need to see it to enjoy it. We have heard drums and flutes and double reeds. In the mountain town of Tsuwano we heard long stretches of drumming that speeded up to a climax, only to start calmly again. In the almost deserted temple grounds it was a beautiful sound. (I was lucky enough to capture it on video.)
Once we saw part of a wedding ceremony. Two men (priests?) took place opposite the happy couple (my wedding dress was a poor affair compared to hers) and played flute and sang while two temple maidens performed a highly stylized dance. It was an extremely serious occasion with solemn faces.

More grounded, earthly somehow, are musical instruments when they are not played. Without their sound they become more material things but things that possess a certain potential. A lot of potentiality. I like looking at drums and bells, strings and brass horns. The large brass bell in the silent zen temple possesses a promise that is intriguing. Same for the drums in the shrines but also the shamisen and koto we encountered in a small shop in Nagasaki. It was a tiny shop with two old men in it eating lunch so I didn’t dare snap a picture. But I did snap this one: ukulele specialty shop in Tokyo. Ukeleles! I didn’t hear them in Japan but in my mind they are now forever tied to Tokyo.

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