Last updated on August 8, 2020
I love traditional folk songs that are linked to specific place. For the last 18 months I’ve been playing songs from Birmingham, as it was where I spent my first 20 years. My following 12 years, however, were spent in Japan. My wife is Japanese. My kids are half Japanese. Japan is where I’d be if I weren’t here in England.
Most people who visit Japan will vaguely recognise ‘Toryanse’ from a very specific everyday situation: crossing the road. Until I met my wife, I assumed it was just the tune that Japanese traffic lights played.
They have two tunes, the Japanese traffic lights: one that plays when you’re crossing in one direction, and another for the other direction. The other one is jolly. This one, ‘Toryanse’, always sounded to me like you were heading in the wrong direction.
Years later, I discovered that I wasn’t entirely wrong. It’s a traditional song and one that seems to come as a warning. Here’s how it translates, roughly…
Let me pass, let me pass
What is this narrow pathway here?
This is the narrow pathway of the Tenjin Shrine
Please allow me to pass through
Those without good reason shall not pass
To celebrate this child’s seventh birthday,
We’ve come to dedicate our offering
Going there is fine, but to return is frightening
I am scared, but let me pass.
Let me pass . . .
According to Wikipedia, ‘Toryanse’ is thought to have been the portrayal of an exchange between a guard and a civilian at Kawagoe Castle in Saitama Prefecture. It’s unlikely that any traffic lights were involved.
Either way, the song has got under my skin over the years. I find the melody incredibly haunting (and the lyrics similarly so). I also find it very challenging to sing, and subsequently loved wandering around the fields near my house, trying to teach myself those intervals well enough to hit them while playing the fairly intricate guitar part.
For the guitarists out there, this arrangement of ‘Toryanse’ is performed in my usual tuning: CGCGCD. No capo, but – as you’ll see – the lowest G string occasional sneaks up to a G# (and then back down again – as the song says, going there is fine, but to return is frightening). Try it for yourself and see.
Please forgive the low-fi video and recording. I wanted to capture it all in one take. I hope I’ve done the song justice.