Live from Hokuriku and Hida

JapanMonday, January 15

Takaoka: Searching for the Sound of Zen

Tashiro: In the next segment, we have another example of a traditional craft from this region. And we have a guest to tell us about it -- Aki Kuwahara from our NHK station in Toyama. Aki, what do you have there?

Kuwahara: This is called "Orin" in Japanese, a special bell used in Buddhist rituals. It is made out of tin and copper.

Robertson: Its sound just keeps going on. I bet if you hit it the right way, it would go on for maybe for a minute.

Tashiro: And it's a special sound for this area, right?

Kuwahara: The sound symbolizes Toyama's craftsmanship. The majority of them are created in this region in a city called Takaoka. It has more than a 400-year history as a metal casting town. Takaoka is responsible for 95% of copper bells and statues made in Japan.

Tashiro: Aki, you had the chance to spend some time with one company there that is attracting attention overseas. The key is sound. Let's take a look.

An ocean away from Japan, the ancient tradition of Zen meditation is practiced in New York. Michael Byrne is the president of Wellspring Monastery. Up to 180 people visit it per month. But something is missing. "We wanted to have a deep resonating bell that rings all on the property that you can hear throughout the valley," Byrne says.

To find the perfect sound, Byrne traveled to a workshop in Takaoka. It's been making bells for nearly 4 centuries, like the Peace Bell in Hiroshima, a symbol for a world without nuclear weapons.

The work requires fine attention to detail. There are hundreds of steps. It takes months to create. All of it is carried out by a small team of 4, led by Masaki Kusunoki. "When we cast metal into bells, we always infuse them with our hope that our clients' wishes and prayers will be reflected in its sound," he says.

In recent years, the workshop has received orders worldwide. Its work is on display in temples in Taiwan and at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

"More people are practicing Zen all over the world like in Brazil and France, for instance," says Oigo Works President Hideharu Motoi.

The secrets of bell making have been passed down through the generations. The lower half is heavier --critical in creating a resonating sound that can last for over a minute. So is the right mixture of metals, carefully measured out to produce a lingering tone. "When we add tin, it creates a better sound. But if we add too much, the bell can be easily broken," says Kusunoki.

In early December, work on Byrne's bell began. But, before it started, as is tradition, prayers were offered for its safe completion. They are believed to instill Buddha's spirit into the bell.

First, metal is heated up to 1100 degrees Celsius, liquefying it, before slowly being poured into the mold. It's the make or break moment. "That's when I get most nervous," says Kusunoki. The next day, the big reveal: the bell is carefully removed from the mold.

It features a butterfly design especially ordered by Byrne. And he already has a place for it. "I am sure a lot of people will come to see it and a lot of people try to ring it," says Byrne.

Robertson: A bell made in Takaoka, especially for a zen temple in the US. Amazing!

Tashiro: These pieces show a modern twist on the metal crafting industry. And we have one more example. Hitomi Taninaka, a professional orin bell player, is here to show us. Hitomi, what attracted you to play this traditional instrument?

Taninaka: It has a gentle sound. It makes me, and everyone, feel relaxed.

Tashiro: Yes, it's very relaxing. Thank you. We have a few minutes left. Morley, what are your final thoughts?

Robertson: It seems like the whole climate, the natural surroundings, the history of craftsmanship, the heavy snow, the architecture, and the local cuisine with the yellowtail, all seem to come together with an underlying sort of spirituality. It's a mountainous region with a bountiful sea nearby. So it seems like people live together with nature, and over the centuries, they developed a kinship, a sense of connectedness to nature.

Tashiro: Yes, thank you Morley. Now, Hitomi is joined by her husband Hideji. The two of them will play us off.

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