Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

Dear Dad, this one's for you

Dear Dad,

You would've been 100 years old today. I didn't do anything lawyerly on your birthday, but ... I've never told you ... but three years ago, when I was on holiday in the United Kingdom, I spent a day in the Temple area of London, visiting the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts of Justice. It was so easy to imagine you there. I would've enjoyed your company, and I wish we could've popped into a pub to talk. Or argue. Probably. Happy century, Dad. I hope you still have tennis, and rugby, and books, and a veld for a walk.

Miss you!

The daughter who was born last

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)

Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.