Be it in the train or on the platform, Japanese railways have a tendency to make so many announcements they may begin to wear on your patience. Nevertheless, when it comes to helping prevent accidents and keeping the trains running by the clock, the need for these ‘noises’ cannot be underestimated. The train systems of Japan, characterised by their punctuality and amenities for passengers, can now add something else to their list of merits: train departure melodies at stations.
There are approximately 160 million people using trains around the world on any given day. Of this, there are over 60 million people in Japan who use trains – Japan is an extremely train-centred society with Japanese passengers comprising one-third of world’s train passengers. While Tokyo’s official population hovers around 12 million, during the day there are as many as 15 million people in the city; each day over 3 million people are travelling into the capital from the outer suburbs, and most of these people take a train.
For commuters who experience the same ride day in and day out, looking at the commute with a fresh eye may be the ‘emergency release’ needed to help break the monotony. To inspire this new take on train travel, we’ve put together some Tokyo railways that will not only give you a comfy ride, but will also be music to your ears.
The departure melody hit parade
Once upon a time, a bell was used to signal impending departures. Then this evolved into an electric buzzer, and later a computerised melody. In Tokyo, computerised melodies were first used in 1989 at Shinjuku and Shibuya stations. In the early days, it was common for the melody to be comprised of a single instrument, such as the harp or bell, but now simple bar melodies are the norm. At some stations, the melodies even have some connection to the station’s environs.
For starters, there’s the Yamanote Line: the most indispensable line for getting around Tokyo. The melody at Takadanobaba station is the Atom Boy theme, in honour of creator Tetsuka Osamu (known as the ‘father of Japanese animation’), who had his studio nearby. Passengers at Komagome Station will get serenaded by ‘Sakura, Sakura’ (‘Cherry Blossom, Cherry Blossom’), tipping its hat to Komagome being the home of the famous somei yoshino varietal of the Japanese national flower, the cherry blossom. Of the 29 Yamanote stations, the only stations that are still in need of musical enhancement are Ueno and Shin Okubo.
For a bit of fun on your next ride, keep your ears open at these stations:
- Ebisu Station: JR Yamanote Line platform
- Catch the steel-drum-like strains of the theme song from ‘The Third Man’ – the song used in the Ebisu Beer commercial.
- Shinagawa Station: JR Tokaido Line platform
- Listen to ‘Tetsudo Shoka’ (‘Train song’) – This segment of the Tokaido Line was the first line to be opened in Japan.
- Kamata Station: JR Kehin-Tohoku platform
- Catch your train from Kamata to the stately sounds of the ‘Kamata Koshin Kyoku’ (‘Kamata March’).
- Hachioji Station: JR Chuo Line Platform
- In honour of the writer of the song ‘Yuuyake Koyake’ (‘Sunset Glow’), the melody is featured at this West Tokyo station.
- Ome Station: JR Ome Line Platform
- Ome is home to Akatsuka Fujio Hall, named after the artist of the ‘Himitsu no Akkaochan’ animation; the theme song is featured here.
And then there are the horns…
Heading into Tokyo from Narita Airport, passengers will hear a music-box-like melody while waiting for the train. This is the sound of the horn for Narita Express JR East Railways train connecting Tokyo with the air hub. The horn, aka the ‘music horn’, had its beginnings back in the 1950s on the Odakyu Railways Limited Express Romance Car running between Shinjuku and Hakone. At the time, few railway crossings had gates or warning signals, making it necessary to alert people that this high-speed train was passing through. Because the train whistle and horns were too noisy to be used all the time, the music horn came into use, and from this point on similar horns began to be used all across the country. In 1980, due to noise issues, Odakyu Railways began phasing them out, no longer fitting them on new trains.
In a 2005 bout of nostalgia for the good old days, the music horn was revived with the debut of the new VSE model Romance Car. While the horn is not used all the time, you can hear it when the train arrives and departs from the station. In addition to the JR Narita Express, the music horn is also used on limited express trains running to Boso, Izu and Shinshu.
The horn is only sounded on trains heading towards tourist areas at the stations where commuters breeze through. Hearing this sound may ignite your wanderlust and that, in our books, passes our fun test.
Tokyo trains generally run on electricity. While they may have superior acceleration and make comparatively less noise, if you listen very carefully you will notice that the motor, the brakes and the opening and closing of the doors make some pretty unique sounds depending on the train company and the age of the trains.
One train with a particularly musical sound is the Keihin-Kyuko 2100 model. Introduced in 1998 and blazoned with a ‘2100’ across the front, this train is mainly used as an express train linking Sengakuji/Shinagawa and Misakiguchi in Kanagawa prefecture.
After the doors close and the train starts to move, the train emits a sound not unlike that of a TV cartoon’s sorcerer casting a spell. No magic involved, though; just physics. The sound is produced when the motor output is converted by a device called a VVVF (variable voltage variable frequency) drive.
As the Kehin-Kyuko line runs alongside its rival JR East Railways’ Tokaido Main line and the Yokosuka lines, the railway company has traditionally used trains that have impeccable acceleration and deceleration, and gaining a time advantage over their rival has taken on a competitive edge. The adoption of the 2100 model is one of the latest coups in this race, and they even go so far as having drivers hit the pedal to the metal as soon as the train takes off in an effort to save time.
With most trains in Japan using domestically manufactured parts, the 2100’s VVVF drive is made by German engineering giant Siemens. The converting motor output sings out a mechanical solfege, earning it the moniker ‘the Pied Piper of Hamelin’ among train geeks, due to its Teutonic origins. The sound is so notable that the band Kururi samples it for their song about the Keihin-Kyuko, ‘Akai Densha’.
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Translated by E. Kavanagh