Saturday, July 3, 2010

The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers

Today's posting is titled with a quote shamelessly pilfered from Basho, and the topic at hand is bell towers. I am reminded of a quote from Ralph Adams Cram I highlighted in a past entry, so I'll share it once again:

"We had heard each evening down at our inn at Uji...the velvety boom of some enormous bell, a sound that seemed to draw one irresistibly to rise up in the still night and search for its source under the great, pale moon...We found the bell and much more...[Japan] concentrates itself and becomes really quite irresistible, in the form of scented temple garden in some forgotten monastery where the odor of incense mingles with that of box, where the patterned sand retains the lines of a thousand years ago, where tonsured bonzes [monks] in yellow robes move silently through the shed petals of a pink cherry, and a thunderous bell gives tongue at the rising of the moon"

Bell towers have been in Japan as long as Buddhism, which takes us back to around AD 650 or so. I've long admired these structures and been intrigued by them.

There are several terms used to describe these structures. The most common term, I believe, is shōrō (鐘楼). The character on the left, '鐘', read shō or ka-ne, means 'bell'. The breakdown of the character is worth a brief exploration. Well, maybe not so brief, heh-heh.

The piece on the left side of '鐘', namely '金', derives from a picture of a hill with small flecks of gold or metal in it, and means gold/metal. The piece on the right side of '鐘' is '', which is a complex little unit and was drawn in pictographic form as this:

Holy crow! A lot going on there, but it can be broken down into more digestible chunks, four in all. At the bottom we have earth, '土'. Above that is a sack with tied ends and a stick piercing through it. Above that is a sideways eye ('目') element. And on top, part number four, is needle. Of all four elements, the one that really carries the day in terms of overall meaning, is the pierced sack element. In fact, given that the needle element on top is suggestive of slaves, who were always tattooed, the combination of those two elements along with eye suggests running a needle through a slave's eye. Yes, my friends, slaves were sometimes deliberately blinded in ancient China.

As an aside, that above core meaning of needle+eye+pierce might sound rather nasty, however even a character with such an everyday use and simple appearance as '民', min, (meaning people, as in minka (民家) or folk house) derives from a pictograph of a needle and eye (in this case, an eye without a pupil) which literally means blinded slave. Yes, my friends, the intelligentsia who created the kanji a couple of thousand years back considered everyday people as little more than subservient masses who go blindly about their lives.

Well, gotta watch those digressions. Back to '鐘' and its right side element of '''. In this case, the meaning of '', given the aforementioned details about the blinded slave portion, and the addition of the earth element , '土', on the bottom is: a weight thrusting heavily down upon the earth, as though to run through it. Take that chunk of meaning and add it to metal, denoted by the identifier ('金'), and you get '鐘', which suggests a meaning of: metal object struck with a motion as though to run through it. A bell in other words.

I went through all that explanation because it highlights a key difference with Chinese, Japanese Taiwanese, etc., temple bells from western ones: there is no clapper and the bell does not swing significantly back and forth. If the bell could swing it would possibly destroy the structure which it was housed in as the bells are often very heavy. These bells then are somewhat like a gong in function. The bells hang and are struck sideways by a pole, which causes a minor distortion in the shape of the bell and the vibratory settling of that distortion causes the sonorous sound of the bell that Mr. Cram so admired.

The second character in 'bell tower', shōrō (鐘楼) is '楼'. That character used to be written as '', which combines tree (木) on the left and '' on the right. That right hand element, the details of which I'll spare you, literally meant female slaves tied to and pulled along by a central restraint. One could say that it means things in succession. In concert with the identifier of tree (木) on the left, we get '', now written as '楼', which means pieces of wood piled in succession, a reference to a wooden structure with several stories, or a lookout tower. A shōrō (鐘楼) then is a type of tower with a bell hung inside. Whew!

The piece about the 'lookout tower' is significant because, for one thing, lookout towers existed in Japan well before the introduction of Buddhism, and instead of having a bell to sound an alarm or communicate, they used a really large wooden drum, or taiko (太鼓). A tower with a taiko placed up high is termed a korō (鼓楼). In the last century or so, the drums in korō type structures have often been replaced with bells or even clocks. So, one will come across structures which look similar to other types of bell towers and have bells in them but are called korō because they originally contained a drum not a bell. One way to tell them apart is that with korō the drum room is usually more or less enclosed and the drum cannot be easily seen. Here's a picture of a korō in Hiroshima:

And here's a retrofitted korō:

The temple bell is itself referred to as a bonshō (梵鐘). The first character in that pair, '梵', means Buddhist/Buddhism. They come in all sorts of sizes - here's a large one located in Taiwan:

Another couple of views for your perusal of the bell installed in its tower:

At Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, many visitors are drawn every New Year's Eve to watch the tolling of one of the largest bells in the world. Cast in 1636, it weighs about 70 tons, stands 3.3m tall and has a mouth of 2.8 m diameter:

Another large bell to be found in Japan is this one, located at Renge-in-tan-jō Temple (蓮華院誕生寺), a bell referred to as the flying dragon:

Having trouble getting a sense of scale from that picture? How about this one?:

Temple bells, though intended largely to function as time markers within a temple compound, also play a significant social role in Japanese culture, especially at such times as the O-bon Festival (to honor one's ancestors) and the New Year's festivity of joya-no-kane, a midnight tolling of the temple bells. At the stroke of midnight on New year's Eve, many Japanese families wait up to hear the tolling of the tsuri-Gane, the great hanging bells at Japan's Buddhist temples. The Joya-no-Kane consists of 108 solemn tolls on the temple bell. The tolls of the bell represent the leaving behind of 108 bonno, or worldly concerns of the old year, which, according to Buddhist belief, torment mankind. During this ceremony, each toll is struck after the reverberations from the preceding toll have dissipated. The final peal of the bell is struck exactly at midnight, so the reverberation resounds into the first few seconds of the New Year. This symbolizes a new beginning or dawn of a prosperous and joyous year.

Another term for bell tower in fact is tsuri-gane-dō (釣鐘堂), or 'hall of the hanging bell'. In the next post I'll describe in more detail a few varieties of bell towers as they come in many shapes and sizes. Here's a teaser:

Thanks for dropping by today.


  1. very exciting chris, i just love these large bells , actually i like the small ones also. i look forward to hearing more about them.
    did you manage to see many when you were in japan?

  2. Hi Gregore'

    oh yes, these have long been one of my favorite Japanese traditional building types and I have visited dozens of these in Japan. More posts to come on this topic!



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