The University of Iowa


April 19th, 2018

What does study abroad sound like? 

Yes, it’s a very odd question… but it has become a rather relevant one in my study abroad experience so far. Let me explain. 

Four weeks in, and I’ve had a lot of things to get used to—a new country, a new neighborhood, and my own cooking (that will take a while). But I’ve also had to adjust to a very new soundscape. 

An “experience” involves multiple elements, and I think it is safe to say that what we tend to remember most is what happened, what we saw, how we felt—in other words, the action. Another major component of a new experience is sound, especially for me. What often stands out the most in my memories are what it sounded like—music playing in the background, overheard conversations, traffic, bugs… Perhaps memory could be thought of as a kind of playlist. 

And as I’ve now spent several weeks living in and wandering Japan, I have especially noticed how much daily life sounds differently from home, and how rich the Japan experience is just from the perspective of sound.

So back to “What does study abroad sound like?” which hopefully feels less weird by now. With this new soundscape setting up the stage for my study abroad experience, I’ve been taking short video clips to give an auditory picture of both what it is like to live in Japan, and how study abroad gives you a new experience in every sense of the word. 

One of my favorite places to go are the local temples (which you can find EVERYWHERE)—but that is not entirely why I took this video. Japan is rife with gigantic, glossy crows, which you hear all day every day. Though some may think otherwise, I find their caws rather relaxing—and it is a sound that I have come to associate with living in Japan.

Speaking of birds, Tokyo’s dense amount of flora harbors a lot of them. But there is one bird in particular that melts the air when it sings—specifically, the bush warbler (also known as the uguisu). I have heard two warblers during my time here—one that hangs around my neighborhood, and one that I encountered while exploring a temple village called Jindaiji in southwestern-ish Tokyo, where I took this video.

Another trademark sound of living in Tokyo is the clatter and honking of trains and subways. Local train stations are about a twenty-minute-walk away from each other, and the action within can be heard almost anywhere on a quiet day. And since you see, hear, and ride them almost every day, they have begun to feel like living things. I shot this while walking to a bus stop. My route ran along a local train track, and when I found this bridge with a pedestrian underpass, I was curious what trains sound like from below. And I was lucky to catch not one, but two trains, while pedestrians were probably wondering why this foreigner was loitering beneath a bridge.

Though I did not take this in Tokyo, it was one of those “Ooh, this is a moment”…moments. I was walking through an 18-19th century-age travel stop for samurai and other wanderers in Fukushima. It being a weekday, my fellow travelers and I had the place to ourselves. The sound of thawed snow dripping off the thatched roofs onto the dirt and gravel reminded me of the samurai dramas I watched over and over on VHS as a kid, and the realization that I was hearing the same seasonal sounds as travelling samurai two hundred years ago was quite awesome. 

I wanted to share how differently Japan sounds from home—but there is another dimension to the significance of this “soundscape” that I have compiled here. Looking back at these videos, and remembering my thoughts as I shot them, has made me realize that these sounds are a kind of reflection of my attitude toward my new surroundings. Not only do I love living in this nook of Tokyo, but I also feel at home.

Onae parker

Onae Parker is a linguistics and Japanese major at the University of Iowa. Winner of a 2018 Gilman International Scholarship award, she will be spending the semester in Tokyo, Japan, as part of the University of Meiji Exchange program.

Interested in going abroad? Learn more about first steps