May 6, 2009
The Singing Jumbo Ferry
ジャンボフェーリKaze no naka kanjiru
Anata no koe kanjiru
In midst of the wind,
I feel your voice.
We have arrived.
In Japan, everything sings or has a theme song. It’s a part of the wonder of Japan. Today, I rode the jumbo ferry home: Kobe to Takamatsu in three and a half hours (you can make it in half that by bullet train for four times the price). The jumbo ferry had a theme song (I wrote a little of it above, best as I can remember). But it wasn’t a joke of a theme song like would be in America. It was about a minute or two long, and whenever they were about to make an announcement, they would play it twice: once by itself and once as background music for the announcement. The song was well-done. Singer sounded professional, along with a moving accompaniment.
The song was alarmingly relaxing. I really felt like I was riding on a tropical cruise, instead of the jumbo ferry. And I tell you, until I listened to that song four times, I never realized how poetic the word “jambo feeri,” sounds. The English translation, “jumbo ferry,” does not capture the heavenly sound of it. In Japanese, jambo feeri has a poetic ring to it, like “vermilion” or “tenderly.” As we drifted through the forested islands of the Seto inland sea, the sun setting in grandeur (there’s another one of those poetic words) before us, the moment’s feeling was captured by the gentle melody of the jambo feeri song.
Anyways, boats aren’t the only thing that sing in Japan. I visited my friends in Osaka who live in a high-tech mansion with a talking bathtub. It also plays a melody when it’s done putting the water in the tub. Their washing machine played a six note tune whenever it finished a load, and their rice cooker had it’s own song, too. Every train station in Japan plays music for about ten seconds when a train arrives, and I don’t know how the station employees stay sane. And (my favorite), the garbage trucks have their own melody as they drive around town.
There are a series of alarms and bells in my neighborhood. The most major is the noon bell, which sounds like an air-raid siren and lasts for about 30 seconds. It lets everyone in town know to take their lunch break (because everyone in Japan takes their lunch at noon). The others have more of a melody to them. I live within earshot of 2 preschools, an elementary school, and a high school (I think that’s all), and I can hear at least two temples from my house.
At 6 AM, the first song goes off. If I happen to be awake, I can hear it in the distance, faintly. I’m sure it’s from a temple, because traditionally, the neighborhood temple would ring the big gong at 6 every morning, and that tradition has been carried down to the present in the form of neighborhood jingles. At 10, I get a tune from one of the preschools. But in Japan, schools don’t mess around with their bells. Having just a buzzer or dinging noise is tactless. Instead, what each school needs is a song that plays for 15 seconds when the school starts and ends. There’s another song that plays somewhere in the neighborhood at 11 or 11:30, but I haven’t nailed down the time. And I’m conjecturing as to where a few of these sounds come from. From the sound of it, one or more of the schools gets out at 3, because I hear that one every day, too.
The last neighborhood noise is at 6 PM. In ye olde times, it was another gong from the temple and signaled the end of the work day. In my neighborhood, 6 PM is like the traffic wreck of neighborhood jingles. The first temple begins its tune, and the second temple follows suit shortly thereafter. Then suddenly, about two seconds later, the government housing complex goes off! It’s a song to rival the temples, and for about ten seconds, all the recordings are playing, echoing off the Asahi steel factory so that you have twice as many notes bouncing back and forth, and you don’t know up from down or Bach from Mozart or if you should be waking up, eating lunch, or going home. And then, quick as it started, one by one, each speaker shuts off in sequence, until the last echo of the government housing’s tune fades from hearing, and all is silent save the frying of tempura in the kitchen by house wives. Man, what I wouldn’t give for one of those.
I will furthermore speak of the unspeakable, the abominable: stores with looping 15 second songs. Yamada Denki, may its name be eternally cursed, is one such place (it’s like a Japanese Best Buy). Repeated every 15 or 30 seconds, you hear the same song, LOUDLY, and it sounds like an 8-year-old boy singing off-key about Yamada Denki. Generally, at places like that, rather than making you want to buy more merchandise, the songs make you want to take a power-drill to your temple.
The local 100 yen store has a song that I like a bit, though it’s gotten stuck in my head a few times. It’s just too peppy for words. Picture this sung by in Japanese by a 16-year-old girl who has hit it back a few too many times at Starbucks. Smile as big as you can and dance a little, and you might get a picture what it’s like to shop there:
We have nothing but the best bargains.
Everyone shouts at you, “WELCOME!”
(Brief musical interlude)
Each, each, 100 yen each.Iss OK, Iss OK (that part is said in Engrish)
100 yen each.
Each, each, 100 yen each.
Each, each, 100 yen each.
Iss OK, Iss OK
Each, each, 100 yen each.
But it gets better. Grocery stores. As you walk in, you may hear that store’s theme song playing: “Marunaka, Marunaka…” But that will usually be quickly replaced by generic elevator music. Now this is one of those things I haven’t figured out about Japan, yet. This music is usually popular American music from within the last 50 years, but instead of playing the actual music, they have these electronically synthesized versions that play without words. The audio quality is roughly equivalent to the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Imagine generic, midi-like elevator music, only it’s to the tune of, say, “Brick House.”
Anyways, that won’t catch your attention long, because as soon as you walk by the fish, you hear:
Sakana sakana sakana
Sakana wo matteiru to
atama atama atama
atama wo (something)
Karada karada karada
MATTE IRU!!Fish, fish, fish
We’re waiting for fish
Head, head, head (head rhymes with fish in Japanese)
Something about your head.
Body body body (body rhymes with head and fish)
Something about good for your body.
WAITING FOR DINNER!
There’s also more in there about “something good is cooking up in the kitchen,” but I can’t remember it very well. It’s all so peppy and happy that it just makes me want to buy more groceries, all day and all night, then go home and eat them when they finally kick me out of the store. See, aside from the store-wide speakers playing elevator music, all these localized product songs are played out of ordinary tape-players plugged in all over the store. Anyways, back to the Marunaka visit…
As you stare into space at the hypnotic effect of the sakana song, you hear something in the distance, like an echo of kindergarten, and you wander in a daze towards the produce. It was the banana song: “Ba-na-na banana, amai banana, banana wa oishisou. Ba-na-na banana, amai banana, banana wa…” “Banana, banana, sweet banana. The banana looks really good. Banana, banana, sweet banana. Banana, banana (I can’t make out the rest)…”
But there is more!!! Oh, there is more! From your left comes something else: “Ichigo, Ichigo, Ichigo” (“Strawberry, Strawberry, Strawberry”). Mikans (mandarin oranges)! There is another stereo sitting on top of the mikans! Ichigo, Mikan, Banana, Ichigo, Mikan, Banana… it’s too much! Too many fruits! Too much music! The beauty has turned to horror! The joy has turned into an amorphous mixture of fructose-laden dribble. And to top it off, as your will is breaking, in the background you hear a square-wave version of Is it unusual to be loved by anyone, and that is all. Your sanity is gone, lost forever. Your will is broken, and you return to America, another missionary casualty of Japan, burnt out and broken, realizing why Japan is the hardest mission field in the world: everything sings in Japan. Beyond idol worship, job worship, love of money, the historical rejection of the gospel and the compromise of the church, beyond busyness, the high cost of living, and even the centuries of truth-absent, post-modern double-think that makes apologetics and reasoning impossible… everything sings in Japan. Everything. Missionaries don’t stand a chance.