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Original photo by lkunl/ Shutterstock
7 Sounds You Can Only Hear in Japan
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by lkunl/ Shutterstock

Following France’s lead, several European countries have granted protected status to traditional products made within their borders — items such as olive oil, sausages, cheeses, regional wines, chocolates, and hams. The protections preserve authenticity and promote locally grown and produced foods as a source of pride for the country.  

Japan — though also rightfully proud of its food and drink culture — has taken a different tack: preserving traditional sounds. Between 1994 and 1997, in a reaction to growing noise pollution in the modern world, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment set out to identify and designate 100 soundscapes throughout the country as distinctly Japanese. The final list of 100, winnowed down from 738 applications, provides a unique guide to Japan by revealing treasured elements of its distinctive culture and natural environment. Take a tour of Japan through seven of its most unusual protected soundscapes, and be sure to click on the links at the end to hear the sounds yourself.

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Drift Ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido

Ship Garinko (passenger ship) and drifting ice.
Credit: KPG-Payless2/ Shutterstock

The description on the original application for this northernmost soundscape probably sealed its place on the list. The sheet of Arctic ice that replaces the usual splashing and gurgling of the ocean makes noises described as “whining and wailing,” and “creaking, squeaking, and groaning.” The phenomenon attracts tourists to the city of Monbetsu, which holds a Drift Ice Festival every February. The winter ice, which used to bring dread and economic hardship to this fishing region, has instead become something to celebrate. However, a noisy festival or a sightseeing trip on an icebreaker ship is not the best way to hear it. Your best bet to fully appreciate the sound of the icy surface is to bundle up and stand perfectly still on the shore to listen. Click here to listen.

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The Whistles of Female Free Divers, Shima

Female divers gathering oysters shinjuto island, where Mr Mikimoto started growing white pearls.
Credit: agefotostock/ Alamy Stock Photo

A tradition of women free-diving in the ocean for seafood and pearls has been part of the culture of Japan’s Shima Peninsula since the eighth century. The women, called ama, begin training with their mothers and grandmothers from adolescence. They can dive as deep as 60 feet without oxygen tanks and — until the latter part of the 20th century, at least — without the benefit of flippers or wetsuits. They often swim well into their 80s.

The breathing technique that the ama have developed includes a release of breath in a long whistle as they resurface after a dive. Though their numbers have dwindled in modern times, their work as harvesters of Mikimoto pearls has led to a resurgence (especially when Mikimoto’s marketing department recognized their potential appeal to tourists). There is also a growing interest of urban women in taking up the tradition. Click here to listen.

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Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto

Path to bamboo forest at Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan.
Credit: lkunl/ Shutterstock

This otherworldly bamboo forest outside of Kyoto is a popular spot for photographers. The sunlight filters to the forest floor through the dense grove, contrasting with the visual drama of the ruler-straight walls of bamboo plants crowding either side of the winding paths. Another reason to visit this remarkable natural site? The soundscape created by the wind — both the rustling of the bamboo leaves high overhead, and the gentle clacking of the stalks themselves. The grove is so dense that visitors often cannot feel the breeze behind the harmonious sound, but the pleasant music it elicits has been deemed a national treasure worth protecting. Click here to listen.

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Shiira River, Iriomote Island

Shiira River and mangrove in Iriomote Island, Japan.
Credit: feathercollector/ Shutterstock

An aural counterpoint to the groaning sea ice at the northern tip of Japan, this southernmost protected soundscape comprises the squawks, chirps, songs, and buzzing of a subtropical island. The Shiira River winds past stands of mangrove and through overgrown jungle — lush habitats for a variety of rare (and delightfully noisy) animals, insects, and birds. The sounds of spotted belly Yaeyama frogs, ruddy kingfishers, Iriomote cats, crested serpent eagles, and cicadas rise and fall in the steamy landscape, cresting in a raucous cacophony before winding down to a whirring calm again.

Since the river was cited among the list of protected soundscapes, most of the tourist boats that used to chug up and downstream to view wildlife have been replaced by canoe and kayak tours. Now, paddlers can pause along their journey to hear the solitary plop of a flower falling into the brackish water, before a rousing accompaniment by the jungle birds and frogs. Click here to listen.

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Yamabushi Conch Trumpets, Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata Prefecture at the Dewa Sanzan Hagurosan Temple.
Credit: Christian Kober 1/ Alamy Stock Photo

The mountainous region of Dewa Sanzan is overseen by three peaks — Gassan, Haguro and Yudono — which, in the local religion, represent the past, present, and future. The mountains are home to a sect of ascetic monks who live simply, eating only plants and berries, and worship the sacred force of nature. These Yamabushi monks sound conch trumpets (horagai) as they walk through the dense cedar forests and visit the stone statues, sacred trees, and temples within. Blowing the conch can accomplish a few things: It can signal one monk’s position to others, or it can be a sonic prayer of praise to Buddha and the gods of the forests, or its clear tone can act as a purification of the site. Click here to listen.

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Suikinkutsu at Suikintei Garden, Gunma Province

Japanese garden ornament and music device.
Credit: yuribon/ Shutterstock

Gunma, a mountainous prefecture, is known for numerous hot springs and the onsen resorts centered around them. This draws visitors from nearby cities, including Tokyo, which is less than three hours away. Part of the allure is seeing how the hot spring baths inform the local culture — in one tradition, women sing and dance while using large paddles to stir the steaming waters. In the town of Kusatsu, a network of open troughs, built from wood, distributes gushing spring water into channels that lead to private onsens and public baths.

With all the focus on flowing springs and bathing, it’s not surprising that the Suikintei botanical garden in Takasaki has a tranquil feature based on the sound of falling water, a traditional Japanese garden ornament and musical device called suikinkutsu. It can be a carefully placed bamboo pipe that trickles a stream into a pool, or an earthenware vessel that’s buried in the garden. A stream dripping into the vessel’s belly resonates pleasantly, like the plucking of an instrument’s string. Click here to listen.

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Thunder Rock (Kaminari Iwa), Goishi Coast

Kaminariiwa rock and Ranboya gorge in Goishi coast, Japan.
Credit: ziggy_mars/ iStock

The Goishi coastline is broken up by dramatic outcroppings of rock, like those along Northern California and Southern Oregon on the opposite side of the Pacific from Japan. The lush green land drops off suddenly in rocky cliffs, with stone arches and lonesome monoliths standing offshore amid swirling waters. Kaminari iwa, or Thunder Rock, is among the most famous of the coastline’s attractions because of the percussive booming created when the surf rushes in and out of its gullies and caverns. Click here to listen.