Imagine a city without the noise of cars
I was scrolling through Twitter the other day, saw this Tweet from a friend and laughed a little too loudly:
It reminded me that my favorite thing about visiting Tokyo last year was the least expected: it’s an eerily quiet city!
Everywhere I go, I try to practice one of my favorite urban exploration exercises: “the listening game”. This is how it works:
- 1. Stop for sixty seconds wherever you are in the city.
- 2. Breathe and enjoy the sounds you hear.
- 3. Keep a list in your head of all the types of sounds you hear (eg, crow croaking, wind in trees, voices of children laughing).
It is something that anyone can do at any time (unless you have a hearing disability), on any walk wherever you are. I did this exercise in Times Square and in a forest, and you can even try it in your own backyard, which I recommend as well.
A word of warning: if you’re like me, you’ll notice how often you hear the sound of cars.
In the Twin Cities, anyway, you can hear cars almost everywhere. I thought about it recently after it finally rained and the noise from the freeway eight blocks and all the other busy streets got so much louder. The buzz of car tires is insidious in American cities, like social tinnitus ringing in the ears of the neighborhood.
(I once mapped this for a project I was working on, recording decibel levels at various distances from I-94 in Saint Paul.)
This is why Tokyo was so surprising. I expected it to sound like New York, where the street creates an omnipresent buzz even from a window ten stories higher in an apartment building: the honking of a horn, the howling of a siren, the din of traffic flowing along a wide avenue around the corner.
I was sure Tokyo would be worse. The city is gigantic and twice as dense as New York. And after all, everyone has seen these videos of people invading a crosswalk.
I was amazed to find that most of Tokyo is really quiet! I was there for a week before the pandemic took hold of the world, and the placidity was incredible. Of course, there are freeways in Tokyo (although these are rare by our standards) and wide streets (although, despite F&F: TD, most people drive there with the speed limit), but the vast majority streets in this huge city are narrow, with design speeds of less than 20 miles per hour. As a result, motorists give in to just about everything and everyone.
The alleys of Tokyo, where everyone walks, are peaceful and calm places. You can hear a bird singing a block away or the wind rustling in a tree in a garden. You can have a conversation in a normal voice with a companion and walk for miles with almost no worry about suddenly having a car speeding around the corner.
It was unbelievable. I walked for miles through Tokyo and marveled at the serenity of the streets and the quality of life in a metropolitan area of 37 million people and several times the density of Minneapolis, Minnesota. . It really made me rethink the assumption, so common in American conversation, that density is synonymous with noise.
Of course, there are other streets in Tokyo that are extremely loud and chaotic, where the sound of pachinko parlors, plastic video game characters, giant TVs on the sides of buildings, and even a life-size walking mascot. looks like the state of Minnesota. Fair every day of the year. But having that contrast was wonderful, the ups and downs of the experience, as opposed to what we have so often in our American cities: the ubiquitous sounds of traffic and cars, and maybe, if you are particularly lucky, the distinctive whine of someone operating a leaf blower.