November 28, 2019

Traveling by ear in Japan

Train culture in Japan is so ubiquitous, so deeply entrenched, and so widely embraced that every time a line opens up or closes down, a new model of Shinkansen debuts or an old one goes out of production, a swarm of reporters show up and the fans turn out in force.

There is a whole genre of reality show on Japanese television that simply involves the host (and a couple of friends) hopping on a train and going somewhere. Japan Railway Journey is a good example. Episodes can be streamed (in English) at NHK World.

You can famously set your watch by a train's arrival time in Japan. But the engineering goes beyond the mechanical and reaches right into your head. CityLab describes the psychology behind what you hear over the loudspeakers.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim is to notify commuters of a train's imminent departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, most melodies are composed to an optimal length of seven seconds, owing to research showing that shorter-duration melodies work best at reducing passenger stress and rushing incidents, as well as taking into account the time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

Thanks to the Internet, you don't have to go to Japan to hear them. The Sound of Station website has collected arrival/departure announcements from around the country, in some (not all) cases accompanied by the aforementioned hassha tunes.

You don't need to understand Japanese to navigate the site. Just click away. But to narrow it down a bit, here are the Japan Railway stations. Japan National Railway was split up and privatized in 1987 like Ma Bell but the distinction remains.

And here are the private railway stations (more hassha tunes in use here).

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