In Japan bells can be found everywhere but the ones which never fail to catch my eye are the ones found in Buddhist temples. These bells are known as bonshō meaning ‘sacred bell’. The oldest known bonshō was cast in 698AD and is still in use.
The shape and sound of these bells is relatively unique; they have a much deeper sound and have a longer and straighter shape than English church bells. The making of these bells requires incredible precision because if it is too thin the bell will crack and break but if it’s too thick then the sound will be muffled and unpleasant. Bonshō can weigh an incredible 70 tons (but they are usually much smaller and lighter — about 1.5m tall and 0.5m wide and made from bronze or iron). The largest bonshō (cast in 1633) is based in Myōshin-ji and weighs an astounding 74 tons. It takes a team of twenty-five people to sound it.
To ring these bells a person or team of people swing a wooden beater suspended by ropes to strike its external surface. The collision between the beater and the bell creates vibrations in the air which produce a low and powerful sound which can often be heard for miles around.
A key function of bonshō bells is in celebrations - they are used to mark the beginning of the New Year which is an important celebration in Japan. The sound is thought to ward off evil spirits so that each new year is started afresh. These bells can also be involved in Buddhist rituals including calling people to prayer and to mark the end of an event.
Furthermore, some Buddhists believe that the sounding of temple bells represents the key teaching and concept of anicca (impermanence) as the sound only lasts temporarily. Therefore, the bells have great significance in the Buddhist religion.
Ringing these bells is also often thought to bring good luck. They can be a source of attraction for tourists who can be found lining up outside some of the more well known bells for a chance to ring the bell and hear the sound resonate around them. Good luck charms with small bells attached are also often sold nearby as a souvenir.
(Photo from Fine Art America)