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Enchanting Edo: 'Furin' wind chime shop brings cool sounds to steamy Tokyo

Furin wind chimes are seen at Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

TOKYO -- Japan's sauna-like summer has arrived, with temperatures soaring in the capital. Today, we have air conditioning and electric fans, but in the old days, Edo locals relied on their wit and spirit to overcome the heat. They scattered water just outside their homes and businesses, and launched fireworks into the night sky. Another means to cool off was enjoying the delicate tinkle of traditional "furin" wind chimes -- literally "wind-bells" -- which ring at the slightest breeze.

    In the eastern outskirts of Tokyo, in a neighborhood near the Edogawa River, stands the Shinohara Furin Honpo workshop, which creates glass wind chimes using techniques passed down from the Edo period (1603-1867). Today, a group of six craftsmen led by members of the Shinohara family -- the fourth generation to run the shop -- is striving to protect the traditional craft.

    Furin wind chimes consist of a bowl-shaped exterior, a narrow strip of paper tied to string that catches wind, and a rod through the middle that brushes against the glass edges to produce a unique sound.

    In a section of the workshop, Yoshihiro Hamada, 51, who says he has been in the craft for 25 years, was sweating away at work before a large kiln with an internal temperature of up to 1,320 degrees Celsius. Inside the kiln was a crucible, filled with syrupy molten glass.

    Craftsman Yoshihiro Hamada is seen blowing into a pipe to inflate glass into the shape of a bell at Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

    The craftsman put a long glass blowpipe into the kiln, spooling glass onto the end with a skilled hand. He then blew into the blowpipe to inflate the glass, rotating it all the while. This method of blowing glass to create glass globes for wind chimes has not changed for 300 years since the Edo period. Even today, these globes are made by hand, one by one.

    When the craftsman traced the edges of the cooled glass globes with a stick, soothing sounds echoed throughout the workshop. "The edges are rough," said Hamada, pointing to the cut opening of a glass globe. The cut end becomes the bottom of the wind chime when it is hung up, and the rough edges are apparently the secret to the chimes' delicate, rich sound.

    Twirling a stick inside and ringing the glass globes, some gave off high-pitched sounds, while others were low; some had hard sounds and others were soft.

    "Due to the size of the glass globe and thickness of the material, all of them have subtly different sounds," said Hamada. While one enjoyable aspect of the traditional bells is to try ringing them one by one to find your favorite sound, most of the foreign visitors who come to the shop apparently make their choices based on the illustrations.

    Various types of furin glass wind chimes are seen at Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

    After the glass-blowing process, the globes were carried to a separate area where they were hand-painted. Emi, 66, the wife of the shop's late third-generation master, her 40-year-old daughter Yukari and 36-year-old daughter Hisana do most of the illustration work.

    The most notable element of the process is that the illustrations are drawn on the inside of the glass globe, meaning that letters must be written backwards, and care also must be taken with the order of any further color coatings. First, the black outline is drawn in with sumi ink, and then blue, green and white are painted in. The background is saved for last. Paint is evenly applied to the entire inner part of the globe, when color needs to be added to the whole background.

    "Originally, red glass wind-bells were the mainstream," said Emi. In ancient times, red was believed to ward off evil, and wind chimes were a talisman for driving away epidemics with their sound and color. Epidemics were perhaps one of the most feared disasters among Edo-ites.

    Classic patterns employing wordplay were also said to bring good luck. A picture of a treasure ship and a pine (read as "matsu," which also means "wait" in Japanese), signified waiting for a ship loaded with riches, and a picture of a turnip and a gold coin symbolized winning money through traditional playing cards. The patterns using wordplay are full of chic humor unique to Edo locals.

    Yukari Shinohara is seen painting illustrations on a furin glass wind chime at Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

    Meanwhile, works with summer motifs, such as morning glory flowers, fireworks, and goldfish, utilize glass's transparency and its cool feeling, and are popular products at the shop.

    "Edo Furin chimes, whose sound has long been beloved, can only be made using the techniques of the old days. On the other hand, the illustrations have changed over time," said Emi. In recent years, the shop has partnered with many art universities and incorporated designs by young people.

    Products adorned with designs of "amabie," a Japanese folklore creature said to ward off plagues, have been a hit since the shop started selling them during spring last year amid the spread of the coronavirus.

    "After all, furin wind chimes were originally used to drive away evil spirits with their sound. It seems that their significance as charms are being reconsidered," said the shop representative.

    The echoes of Edo wind chimes seem to contain the wish to blow away the stifling atmosphere hanging over us with their refreshingly cool sounds.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    A word of wisdom: 'Furin' glass chimes have delicate sounds that cannot be expressed in words

    I hung up two Shinohara Furin glass chimes -- a mini one that fitted in the palm of my hand and a larger one with a wider opening -- on a curtain railing at home.

    Among the various designs available, my final choices were ones that showed a pink morning glory and the plump face of a green "kappa" creature with round eyes, downward slanting eyebrows and a yellow beak.

    A furin wind chime is seen at Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

    Both wind chimes look their best during the daytime as the glass globes sway in the wind while the transparent glass reflects the sunlight.

    Though my selection was solely based on design instead of sound, I've come to appreciate the sound more and more since actually putting them up on my window. I enjoy listening to their jingling as they sometimes ring alone and other times intermingle. Even if I'm in another room, I can hear their faint echoes. Since their sound depends on the breeze, they sometimes catch me by surprise with their sudden tinkling.

    I encountered the unique sound of chimes, now familiar to me, during a walk through a rural neighborhood, making me smile in the muggy heat. No matter how hard I searched, I couldn't locate where the sound was coming from. This made me realize that these traditional wind-bells were signs of summer that can be enjoyed even from a distance.

    Shop manager Emi Shinohara had told me that smaller chimes have a high-pitched sound while glass chimes with larger bodies and openings at the bottom have a lower tone.

    That being said, she stated firmly, "Sound is something that's very subtle, and cannot be expressed in or reduced to words.

    Emi Shinohara, shop manager of Shinohara Furin Honpo, in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

    "You have to come and hear them with your own ears to fully appreciate them," she said.

    Although the craftsmen encouraged us to test out the jingle of each chime to choose our favorite sounds, I had been engrossed in the pictures without realizing it.

    "How 'furin' bells are appreciated depends greatly on each individual's preferences and sensibility," said Shinohara. It is hoped that more people can come in touch with the charms of "furin" bells, regardless of where their interests start.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    Shinohara Furin Honpo is located at 4-22-5 Minami-shinozakimachi in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward.

    The shop's official website can be reached at https://www.edofurin.com/

    A customer, left, is seen taking part in a glassblowing workshop session at Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)
    This image shows Edo wind chime shop Shinohara Furin Honpo in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

    First-generation head Matahei Shinohara began learning the craft of creating furin bells at age 15, and opened a wind chime factory in Iriya, Tokyo, in 1915. Second-generation head Yoshiharu moved the shop to Edogawa Ward in 1964, and the brand name "Edo Furin" has been used since.

    The shop holds workshop sessions for both glassblowing and painting your own glass bells. Two women who participated in the workshop commented, "It was difficult to draw the pictures on the inside of the round glass globe," and, "I was happy with the transparent look when it was done." Local elementary school students also make class visits to the shop. Glassblowing craftsman Kenichi Otsuki also made a bell at Shinohara Furin when he was in grade school, an experience that inspired him to work here.

    * * *

    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of the articles, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The user-friendly text primarily targets grade school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    The next "Enchanting Edo" story will be published on Aug. 17.

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