Japan from the inside out

A Japanese wedding bell, Shinto (and Buddhist) style

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW what that yellow thing hanging from the post is when you first see it—I didn’t either—but the inspiration for its creation was a combination of love (or lust), religion, and commerce. That should be a dead giveaway the location of the photo is Japan. To be specific, it’s hanging near a 200-year-old Japanese linden tree (shinanoki; tilia japonica) designated as divine on the shores of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Tochigi.

A Nikko <i>miko</i> and a yellow bell

A Nikko miko and a yellow bell

It turns out that the yellow thing is a bell. It’s 55 centimeters long, 20 centimeters in diameter, and weighs six kilograms. Made of steel and painted yellow to attract good fortune, it’s modeled after a 10-centimeter hand bell excavated at nearby Mt. Nantai that was used by devout Buddhists to summon the spirits of the divinities.

So what’s the bell doing on a post out in the open? It’s next to a sacred tree at the Futarasan Shinto shrine, one of the Nikko shrines and Buddhist temples that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin—a Buddhist monk—it has two swords that are national cultural treasures. He had already established the famous Rinno-ji temple complex 16 years before. For centuries the temple and the isolated location made the site a destination for ascetics, and it became a resort area in the modern era when people began to think that asceticism was kind of a drag compared to the delights of the material world.

But more to the point in this case is that one of the tutelary deities of the Shinto facility is Daikoku-sama, the god of marriage. The Japanese linden has also been traditionally associated with connubial bliss. And nearby is a small hall in which is enshrined Aizen, the guardian (or god) of love of the esoteric Mikkyo sect.

As this excellent site explains, Aizen is the:

King of Sexual Passion, (who) converts earthly desires (love/lust) into spiritual awakening; saves people from the pain that comes with love; three faces, three eyes; six arms (typically holding weapons; often wears crown containing a shishi (magical lion); red body, symbolizing the power to purify sexual desire; often carries a bow and arrow (like Cupid).

Aizen is a Japanese Buddhist deity that is not known in India, though he was also given a Sanskrit name. This is the first I’d heard of him, but then a divinity that purifies sexual desire is even less appealing than asceticism these days.

The bell was also created to symbolize a happy marriage, and it was purposely cast to make a sound resembling “kon”. Kon is the reading for the second kanji in the word kekkon, which means marriage, and the kanji itself also has that connotation.

The whole bell idea is the brainchild of the priests at Futarasan Shrine. Tourism in the area is slumping, and they hoped the bell would become a symbol of the town, giving it the image of a romantic getaway. They thought it might entice engaged or newly married couples to visit in the hope that the good mojo would rub off on them. Purifying their sexual desires is probably the least of their cares.

So to sum up, the officials at a famous Shinto shrine created a bright yellow bell designed to look like a religious artifact found during an archaeological dig. They hung the bell next to a tree associated with marriage near a Shinto shrine whose deity is associated with marriage, and a small hall with a Buddhist deity that is the King of Sexual Passion and carries bows and arrows like Cupid. Their intention was to attract more tourists to come and ring the bell, which would result in local merchants more frequently ringing up the cash registers.

Evidently, being a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history dating back more than 1,200 years in a district with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum and plenty of hot spring resorts isn’t enough to appeal to potential tourists.

Considering the integral role rice plays in Japanese culture, it’s a wonder they didn’t find a way to work in the Western custom of throwing rice at newlyweds as they leave the church after their wedding ceremony. With all those other ingredients in that gumbo, no one would think the rice was unusual at all, and some would think it made the dish even tastier.

Who knows, it might attract even more people who want to live happily ever after their unique wedding ceremony!

One Response to “A Japanese wedding bell, Shinto (and Buddhist) style”

  1. Tor said

    Does ringing the bell bring good luck for the marriage?
    Yes, that’s the idea.
    – A.

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