Winter Sounds in Japan

25 April 2011

There are a lot of uniquely Japanese sounds.  But the two I’m writing about today appear on cold winter nights, and echo eerily through the dark, empty streets between dinner and bedtime.

Japanese winters are cold. They’re not -30C cold, but what they do have on Canadian winters is how drafty Japanese houses tend to be, and the distinct lack of central heating. All across the country the appearance of convenience store oden and yaki-imo wagons mark the arrival of winter.

Yaki-imo wagon

Yaki-imo are sweet potatoes roasted over flames in wood fired ovens in small mobile carts or trucks.  They’re served up wrapped in newspaper, and are not only delicious, but keep your hands warm too.  But the most distinctive thing about yaki-imo is that the sellers sing a very distinct yaki-imo song. They typically make the rounds until just after dinner time, and I always found their song a bit eerie drifting though the dark streets.

Hi no Yōjin

Central heating is near non-existent in Japan, one result of which is the kotatsu, but another is that kerosene and gas heaters are still commonly used for heating.  Every year, housefires result from people forgetting to shut of their heaters before bed.  As a reminder to shut off the heaters, people walk through town late at night, carrying lanterns and clacking wooden blocks together, calling out “hi no yōjin”: be careful with fire.  The sound of the blocks typically carries for many blocks, and you often hear their calls echoing through town, coming and going for up to half an hour as you lay in bed.