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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?

Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).

From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.

Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin (風鈴).

Edo wind chime made from glass

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:

The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Chinese artisans started casting copper bells in roughly 1000 BC, adding design and music. Wikipedia says, "The Chinese created the feng-ling, which is similar to today's modern wind bell. The feng-lings were hung from shrines and pagodas to ward off evil spirits and attract benevolent ones. Today, wind chimes are common practice in the East and used to maximize the flow of chi, or life's energy."

You get many different kinds, but my favourite is the small glass bubble called an Edo fūrin, since they were developed, or rather perfected, in the shitamachi. How did that happen? First, wind chimes were introduced to Japan along with Buddhism; a few centuries later foreigners in Nagasaki taught Japan about glass crafts; and finally a craftsman called Kazusaya Tomesaburō  (上総屋留三郎) returned to Tokyo after training in Nagasaki for many years, and became famous for his glass wind chimes.

Kazusaya and another craftsman, Kagaya Kyūbei (加賀屋久兵衛), were the two main producers of glassware in Tokyo. When glass prices dropped in the late 1880s, Edo fūrin became popular all over Japan.

They haven't lost their charm. The best description I've read is that they're psychological air conditioning: if you hear them, you're supposed to feel less hot, because it means there's a breeze to cool you down. Never mind that it's a wind from the furnace of hell itself. Let's not allow reality to intrude, shall we?

Nowadays the most famous Edo fūrin manufacturer in the shitamachi is Shinohara Fūrin Honpo (篠原風鈴本舗) in Minami-Shin-Ozakimachi in Edogawa. I haven't been to their factory, but I bought one of their designs at a small shop in Okachimachi, Shinohara Maruyoshi Fūrin (篠原まるよし風鈴). I've included photos of the shop below.

I fell in love with Edo fūrin as soon as I heard the first tinkle, and it's become the sound I associate the most with summer in Japan. Earlier this week a university colleague told me about a wind chimes market at Kawasaki Daishi. (My interest in old Edo isn’t exactly a secret anymore.)

"Wind chimes? Market? When? Tell me tell me tell me," I babbled and started bouncing around as I'm wont to do.
"Err. Now. This weekend," my colleague said.
"Kbye!" I yelled and took off.

I had my doubts on my way to Kawasaki, because that temple is ultra-popular and markets can be hideously overcrowded, but what a delight this one is! It's small, busy but not claustrophobic, and it packs a wide variety of designs into a limited space.

Above and below, the wind chimes market at Kawasaki Daishi

I was as tempted to go on a buying spree as I usually am in a bookstore, but I restrained myself, partly because the only way to avoid temptation for an obsessive-compulsive idiot like myself is to Not Give In At All, and partly because I prefer to support the shitamachi's local shops.

Let me show you what the real thing looks like. See the two photos below? The wind chime on the left is a cheap imported Chinese product; the wind chime on the right is a handmade beauty from Shinohara Maruyoshi Fūrin. Apart from the obvious difference in quality and sound, here's another way to tell whether it's the real deal. Look at the gap in the bottom of the wind chime: if it's smooth, it's factory-made; if it has a rough edge, it's a real Edo wind chime. It's believed that the rough edge adds a pleasant, more natural sound as the clapper rubs along the ripples in the glass.

A second difference: the Chinese decoration is clearly mass-printed on the outside of the glass; the Shinohara wind chime's decoration is painted on the inside of the glass so that the painting is protected when the wind chime is placed outside and exposed to wind and rain.

Finally, the mass-made Chinese wind chime has glass that is smooth and bland and without any personality; the Shinohara wind chime, formed by human mouth and hands, has tiny little bubbles in the glass. You can see it clearly in the photo above. 

Now you know. You're welcome.

Oh. Prices. You want to know about prices? The Chinese one was ¥600, the handmade one ¥1600. You can see more prices and designs here.

Sources and more links (don't panic; most of it is in English)

"The sound echoes the impermanence of all things" is the famous opening line of The Tale of The Heike. Here's the full quote: "The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."

Temple bells (highly recommended article from

Wind chimes for sale in the shopping street in front of Kawasaki Daishi. Most of them are imported from China.
If you want handmade Japanese wind chimes, visit the market inside the temple complex (open till Monday 21 July).

The photo above and most of the photos below show authentic handmade Japanese wind chimes.

My two wind chimes. You did notice what's in the background, didn't you?!
Below, a video I made so that you can hear the sound.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The littlest Inari shrine in Tokyo

I have an irritating tendency to do things ass backwards. Instead of approaching life in a linear, logical fashion, I bollemakiesie into it.

Bollemakiesie means somersault, and it's one of my favourite Afrikaans words. I love the sound of bollemakiesie, huppelkind, hupstoot, kwansuis, bokmakierie, fieterjasie, gogga, katjiepiering, kolwyntjie …

Oh. I do seem to like the diminutive form, -ie, in Afrikaans.

See? I'm doing it again. I want to tell you about the littlest Inari shrine in Tokyo and how do I do it? By bollemakiesie-ing into it gat-oor-kop via Afrikaans words.

 Suzufuri Inari Jinja (鈴降稲荷神)

I first read about this shrine in an old book about Tokyo, which merely said the smallest Inari shrine was in Akasaka. It didn't even mention the shrine's official name, but it did include a map. It was a silly idea and a wild fox chase, and when could I ever resist either? I took off. I knew the shrine was somewhere in Akasaka, near the TBS building, but that in itself was an iffy direction since the map I was following was drawn when General Nogi was still living in that area.

TBS building

You may think of Akasaka as a neighbourhood that's snugly – or should that be smugly? – situated between the government centre in Nagatachō and the (smutly?) nightlife district Roppongi. It's often described as a wealthy area that provides condos to wealthy expats and head offices to companies such as EMI Records, Fuji Xerox and Komatsu.

Yes, it’s all that, but if you duck into the valley behind the TBS skyscraper, you'll see narrow alleys and dilapidated wooden houses. It's a hilly area, and it was hot, and I couldn't find the damn street where the bloody shrine was supposed to be.

Well, would YOU have found it? If it hadn't been for the typical red banners,
I would've walked past.

Fortunately I'm stubborn. I caught it. Eventually.

Then I forgot about it. Mission accomplished. Move on.

Fast forward two years, and Ru is looking at Google Maps, trying to figure out how far it is between two stations in Akasaka. She spots Akasaka Station, Exit 3a, the TBS building, and behind it "Suzufuri Inari Shrine".

"Heh," she thinks. "That's where I was blundering about. Shrine. Interesting. Wonder which one … whoa … hang on … that's it! That's the littlest Inari shrine! Its name was right here on Google Maps the whole time?!"

Yes, it was, and Ru had once again bollemakiesied her way ass backwards into a story.

Why didn't I use Google Maps two years ago? I'mfromAfrica. I track things with animal footprints in dust and elephant dung that leads to rivers. Maps? Maps are dull. It's more fun to flounder about completely lost while muttering petulantly and alarming the natives.

Also, Africa time. It takes two years to write a story. Problem?

I went Googling. Nothing in English, and very little in Japanese. I was informed that Suzufuri Inari Jinja (鈴降稲荷神used to be in Yotsuya, but then moved to Akasaka, and Tokugawa Ieyasu had something to do with it, and bells. Bells? Something something bells. Tokugawa? "If it's Tokugawa," I thought, "it's got to interest Tokugawa expert Somedays Sarah. Perhaps if I promise her a penguin, two penguins?, she'll help me with the translation? Yes, time to recall the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to active duty, definitely."

Sarah is Canadian. She speaks not only fluent Japanese, but has mastered classical Japanese. She's more obsessed with Tokugawa Ieyasu than I am with Sky Tree, and she loves penguins, and I'm from penguin capital Cape Town.

It's a match made in heaven.

I dispatched an email, and here – finally! – is the shrine's story with the help of Sarah and her husband U.


The shrine was originally located at Yotsuya Tonomachi, was moved to Akasaka Hitotsugi, collapsed in the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923 and two years later was combined with the Inari shrine within the grounds of Hikawa Jinja.

There are two possible explanations for the shrine's unusual name, "suzufuri" (鈴降) or "bell that descends". Legend has it that the god Inari possessed the body of a 7-year-old girl and told her, "This bell has descended from heaven. If you pray to it just once, your family will be blessed with prosperity."

Ru being Ru immediately started thinking dirty thoughts. Inari, the god of fertility. His foxes hold a tama () under one paw. Tama has many meanings – sphere, precious, beautiful, jewel or testicles – but in a Buddhist context it's usually translated as jewel. It represents both financial and spiritual wealth. Bell, tama, testicles, possession, blessings, fertility, oh it's all rather deliciously Freudian.


Another explanation for the name:  At the time of the Honnō-ji Incident, when Tokugawa Ieyasu was trying to get through Iga to Hamamatsu, he heard the sound of a bell which lead him to a Kannon temple. A priest at the temple gave Ieyasu three bells and had locals show him the route to Iga. After Ieyasu established the bakufu he called the priest to Edo and offered him land in Yotsuya, where a shrine was established for the bells.

It's not exactly impressive.

I was trespassing in somebody's private garage to take this photo. I'mfromAfrica.

Is it worth it?

It's tiny! I'm not sure whether it's really the tiniest official Inari shrine in Tokyo. I haven't found conclusive evidence via Google yet, but my search has introduced me to a few dozen other tiny Inari shrines (surprisingly many in Chiyoda-ku), from which we could conclude that Ru might have an Inari summer.

I've seen smaller shrines at private homes and companies, but I'm referring to shrines recognized by the Association of Shinto Shrines (神社本庁 Jinja Honchō).

Akasaka is a pleasant area, and Suzufuri Inari Jinja is cute, unusual and sufficiently hidden away to gladden a hunter's heart. If you're a serious shrine lover, go. If not, don't. Simple.


Nothing to do with shrines, but it uses the same kanji, and that's a good enough excuse to share a poem by Issa with you.


yoi yo to ya
mushi ga suzu furi
tobi ga mau

a good world!
crickets ring
a black kite wheels

Bell crickets are called suzumushi because they produce a sound like a ringing bell. "Mushi ga suzu furi" means "the insects that are shaking bells", i.e. crickets.

How to get there

I haven't included a map, because you can simply go to Google Maps, type in "Akasaka Station", find Exit 3a and look a bit up and towards the left. There it is. Embarrassingly easy.

Translations of Afrikaans words

bollemakiesie – somersault
gat-oor-kop – bum over head, i.e. somersault, i.e. backwards, wrong, disorganized, impulsive
huppelkind – literally skipping child
hupstoot – push, shove, help
kwansuis – allegedly
bokmakierie – a bush shrike
fieterjasie – fuss
gogga – insect, bug
katjiepiering – gardenia (literally kitten's saucer)
kolwyntjie – muffin

Thank you!

This post is dedicated to Sarah and U. You're the best!


I haven't responded to all comments at older posts yet, and once again I haven't visited other blogs for, what?, two or three weeks? Academia, summer semester, heavy class load. Reality is having a detrimental effect on my fantasies.

This is the Inari shrine at Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka.

Torii at Inari shrine at Hikawa Jinja


Friday, 27 June 2014

This is why I can't cope with Japan

Last weekend I had a female student at my eikaiwa. Thirty-something. Single. Lives with parents. Will go to Paris with her mother in August.

To visit Paris Disneyland.
Why don't you go to Tokyo Disneyland?
I have to went to there already.
When did you go?
Many times.
How often?
Hundreds. (Isweartogoddess this is what she said. I believe her.)
So why do you want to go to Paris Disneyland? What's the difference?
Is not crowded.
You're going all the way to Paris Disneyland because it's not so crowded?
Uh-huh. What else will you do in Paris?
Disney. Finished. (She meant that's it. Paris Disneyland. That's it. That's what they will do, the thirty-something single woman and her mother.)

She's been to Paris before.

Did you enjoy some French champagne?
I no drink.
Uh-huh. What did you eat?
McDonalds. (Isweartogoddess this is what she said.)
Yes. I love McDonalds.

Oh Jesus Mary Joseph Balaam's ass and all the apostles ...

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Christian Zen garden at Zuihō-in

Did you know that there's a famous Zen garden in Kyoto that incorporates a Christian cross into its design?

I'll tell you about it, but first … why this now?

It's rainy season, that's why, and earlier today, as I stood on my balcony enjoying a thunderstorm, I remembered that I visited Kyoto in June 2010. It was one of my best trips ever, because it was raining incessantly and the city's temples and moss gardens were deserted. I sat at the famous Ryōan-ji, Ryōan-ji!, for two hours without any company.

There is nothing – I swear nothing in this universe – as tranquil as a Zen moss garden in rain.


That Christian Zen garden? It's at a temple called Zuihō-in (瑞峯院) in the Daitoku-ji complex (大徳寺). Zuihō-in means "blissful mountain", and it refers to the legendary Mount Penglai, home of the Eight ImmortalsThe temple was founded in 1546 by the feudal lord Ōtomo Sōrin (大友 宗麟) from Kyūshū, who was baptized as a Christian at the age of 46.

The quietly sleeping garden

Zuihō-in has several gardens, but let's focus on the one in the northern corner, officially named "the quietly sleeping garden" (Kanmintei 閑眠庭), but nicknamed "the garden of the cross".

It was designed in 1961 by Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲), an artist who also studied the tea ceremony, flower arranging and painting. He designed 240 gardens, mostly dry landscape gardens (karesansui 枯山水), the most famous being the garden at Tōfuku-ji (東福寺).

Kendall Brown, in his preface to Mirei Shigemori: Rebel in the Garden notes that "Shigemori embodies the central artistic quest of his era – a new direction in Japanese creativity founded on the desire to overcome a fundamental tension between the perceived polarities of dynamic Western Culture and the relative stasis attributed to the Asian tradition".

Shigemori turned that tension on its head when he incorporated Buddhism and Christianity at Zuihō-in, and he did it so beautifully that you want to weep when you look at it.

The shorter line of the cross is towards the far end of the garden, seen from this angle.

I don't know enough about gardening to talk knowledgeably, so I'm going to quote directly from Christian Tschumi's books Mirei Shigemori - Rebel in the Garden: Modern Japanese Landscape Architecture and Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese Garden. 
The name "the garden of the cross" hints at the fact that with regard to Christianity things (in the 1600s) were only quiet and peaceful on the surface in Japan. The government had forbidden Christianity and attempted to stamp out all visible signs of its practice. Over the next 250 years, Christianity flourished undercover and in secret in Japan. One could only recognize it if one knew it was there. The same is now true for Shigemori's stone setting in the form of a cross; you can only see it if you know it is there.
The longer line of the cross

The longer line of the cross is closest to the viewer in this photo.

I found this sketch on the internet four years ago, and saved it without writing down its source.
I hope the artist won't mind that I'm using it to illustrate the shape of the cross.

When Shigemori was asked to design a modern garden at the famous Daitoku-ji, he was fully aware of the concomitant responsibility and high expectations.
"There are many famous and old gardens at Daitoku-ji," he said, "so this one couldn't possibly be just an ordinary classic style. If it were, the Kyoto Garden Association (who had commissioned him) would lose face. I had to build the absolutely best garden I could, even though it was all volunteer work for me and was also on a very tight construction budget. To be able to make a garden at Daitoku-ji was a milestone in my life, so I did my best to leave something interesting behind."
You did, Shigemori-sensei, oh, you did. Your garden is … I wanted to say it takes your breath away, but actually it takes your heart away and stills your thoughts.

I wish all belligerent religious leaders could spend a week together in this garden. There might be less killing and more quiet sleeping.


1) I took these photos four years ago with a small Canon IXY camera. I need to go back with the big gun to try again.

2) If you're interested in Japanese gardens, I recommend Robert Ketchell's blog, which I discovered while researching Zuihō-in.

The entrance to the temple

Smaller garden detail

Smaller garden detail


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