Japan’s Muzak obsession

Buying over-packaged apples to the strains of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows is not something I ever imagined I’d find myself doing on a cold Monday evening in Kyoto. And yet at the beginning of last week I found myself walking the aisles of a 24-hour Fresco while that particular psychedelic number and a whole host of other Beatles tunes blared out over the store’s speaker system.

The thing is though, this kind of aural stimulation isn’t that unusual in Japan. Or rather, any kind of aural stimulation isn’t unusual in Japan. This is a country seemingly incapable of being anywhere without a soundtrack.

While supermarkets tend to prefer proper tunes (as well as the Fab Four we’ve been treated to Whole Lotta Love and Radiohead’s High and Dry while out grocery shopping), Muzak is the order of the day everywhere else. And I really do mean everywhere. Elevators in department stores, hotel lobbies, street corners, even a floor polishing machine at Shin Kobe station. You name it, whether it’s a xylophone interpretation of every track from Dusty in Memphis or a pan-pipe rendition of the Titanic theme tune, there’s a Muzak version of something for any occasion and every location.

It feels as if there’s an overriding need to provide something to listen to while in an urban environment. Something to mask the general hubbub and roar of traffic. Osaka and Kyoto are the worst offenders. The most unsuspecting of streets in both of these cities are the homes of some truly mind-numbing tunes.

As far as I can make out, this plays largely into a major dichotomy surrounding Japan. When it wants to do quiet and contemplative, few places on Earth can match it. Nowhere allows you to stop and think like hill-top shrines and hidden temples. But when it wants to do urban and brash, it appears Japan has to go the whole hog. Nowhere in town feels sacred, thanks largely to Muzak and music.

Still, hearing Mother Nature’s Son, one of my favourite Beatles tunes, while pondering whether to pay 600 yen for a punnet of strawberries is perhaps my most left field highlight of the trip so far. But with one week left here, I certainly wouldn’t complain if the speakers pumping out Muzak on Japanese city streets fell silent, even for just a few minutes.

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