The Great Bell at Chio-In temple, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto.

Chion-in (知恩院, Monastery of Gratitude), in Higashiyama-ku, the principal Buddhist monastery of the Jōdo sect, stands on a hill in Eastern Kyoto in a situation recalling that of many fortresses.

This temple was founded in A.D. 1211 by Enkō Daishi. His festival is celebrated on the 19th—24th April with a grand religious service, and also with less pomp on the 24th day of every month, on which occasion the great bell is rung. Most of the present buildings date from 1630. Near its gate, in Awata-guchi, is the celebrated pottery of Kinkō-zan.

Great Bell, Chio-In, temple, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, japan,
Great Bell at Chio-In temple, Kyoto c. 1897.

The Great Bell of Chio-In temple.

by Nagatsuné.

This bell, Ōgane (Large Bell), is one of the largest in the world, and hangs in a belfry, Daishōrō (Great Bell Tower), in the grounds of the Chio-in temple, a grand old monastery of the Jōdo-shū (headquarters of Pure Land Sect) Buddhists on Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. It is dedicated to Enkō Daishi, *) whose shrine stands on a stage, called Shumi-dan, at the back of the chancel, within a space marked off by four lofty gilt pillars.

*) Enkō Daishi. Posthumous title bestowed upon the monk Genku, also called Honen Shōnin (1133- 1212), who, after passing four years in the monastery of Hiyeizan, without finding the complete truth he was seeking, left it when eighteen years old to go to Kurodani, and, rejecting the practices of the Tendai sect, became the first exponent of the Jodo sect. He is said to have limited his prayers to the repetition sixty thousand times daily of the name of the Buddha Amithaba.

A pavilion in the courtyard contains the great bell. It was cast in 1613, is 108 ft. high, with a diameter of nine feet, thickness, 9½ in.; and weighs seventy-four tons. For exactly a century this monster sound-maker was peerless among the bells of the world, till in 1733 the “Czar Korokol,” the “Great Bell of Moscow,” was cast. This latter, however, is said never to have been hung, and stands in the Kremlin grounds useless, with a large piece broken from its side—a disaster which occurred in a fire a few years after it was made, and not, as is generally supposed, during the burning of Moscow by Napoleon. The Chio-in bell can now only claim second place among Japanese bells, as in 1903 a bell was cast at the Tennoji temple at Osaka which weighs over two hundred tons; it is twenty-four feet high and sixteen feet in diameter.

Others of the great bells of the world are that at the Daibutsu Temple in Kyoto, which is fourteen feet high and weighs sixty-three tons; and the bell at Nara, a dozen miles away, is thirteen feet and six inches high and weighs thirty-seven tons. The “Great Bell of Mingoon,” Burma, is conical-shaped, twelve feet high, and sixteen feet in diameter at the lip. It is said to weigh eighty tons, but the impression I gained was that this was an exaggeration. The next in order are the Ta-chung-tsu bell at Peking, which hangs in a temple outside the Tartar Wall, and another of equal size which is suspended in the Bell Tower in the centre of the Tartar City. These bells are two out of five each eighteen feet high and ten feet in diameter which were cast about the year 1420, by order of the Emperor Yung Loh. They are said to weigh one hundred and twenty thousand pounds each (about fiftythree tons). Two of the remaining bells are in other temples near Peking, while the fifth is at the Imperial Palace. Another monster which holds a foremost place among the bells of the world hangs in a pavilion in the centre of the city of Seoul, the capital of Korea. These oriental bells are never sounded by a tongue, but by means of a suspended tree-trunk, which is swung and brought sharply into contact with the lip.

Great Bell, Chio-In, temple, Kyoto, Japan, Monastery, Buddhist,
The Great Bell at Chio-In temple, Kyoto, Japan c. 1910.

The sounding of Chio-in’s great basso is accompanied by much picturesque ceremony. The chains that hold the heavy log are unlocked, and a gang of some dozen coolies take hold of the hand-ropes hanging from the suspended beam, and commence a chant in unison as they set it a-swinging. When a certain line is reached they strain upon the ropes, and bring the bole against the chrysanthemum crest on the bell with all the strength that they can muster. A muffled roar springs from the monster as the burred edge of this battering ram opens its lips, but the roar quickly turns to soft, musical reverberations that go singing over the city, and slowly purr away to silence. The beam is checked ere it can strike again from the rebound, and the chant continues for some minutes before another note is sent booming and echoing into the hills and dales.

The broad and spacious approaches of the temple are gravelled avenues, with pine and cherry-trees spreading their branches wide overhead; and a vast terrace lies in front, from which a flight of stone steps leads to the great two-storied entrance gate—one of the finest in Japan. It is a typical piece of the purest old Buddhist architecture, over eighty feet in height, with beams, ceilings, cornices, and cross-beams all deeply carved with dragons and mythical creatures, and decorated with arabesques in colours. Again, long flights of steps lead higher up the wooded hillsides to the plateau where the temple buildings stand.

As the top is reached great flowing lines appear the splendid curves of heavily-tiled roofs, sweeping upwards far above the massive pillars that support them, and the surrounding tree-tops. Great halls and little halls and pavilions are scattered everywhere. At the threshold of the main building streams of pure water flow over the scalloped edge of a Brobdignagian lotus-bloom of bronze into a granite trough, at which the worshippers cleanse all impurities from their lips and fingers before entering the sanctuary. Inside the massive doorway a priest sits all day long, from dawn till dark, and from dark till dawn, mechanically tapping a drum; and every few hours the automaton is relieved and another takes his place. These drumtappers are very old, with heads as innocent of hair as the parchment of the drum they beat.

A forest of pillars, polished like bronze, lose their tops among the massive rafters, and the chancel is all aglow with gold and rich embroidery. During the hours of Mass a hundred Buddhist priests, clad in gorgeous flowing robes of silk and rich brocades of every colour and shade, file in and settle on the padded mats before their lacquered sutra-boxes. Gong-beats punctuate their chants, and incense fills the air as the smoke curls upwards from the altar censers, and the whole scene is of bewildering beauty—a kaleidoscope of colour.

Chio-in’s fine old buildings are rich in works of art. Iémitsu, most peace-loving of the Shoguns, built the priests’ apartments and the sliding screens that form; the walls are embellished with masterpieces from the brushes of many famous artists of the Kano school. Among the best examples are the fusuma, or sliding doors, of a little room of eight mats, decorated by Naonobu with plum and bamboo branches. In the next room Nobumasa painted some sparrows so lifelike that they took wing, leaving only a faint impression behind and pair of doors, painted with pine-trees by; Tan-yu, were such faithful reflections of nature that resin exuded from their trunks.

A curious feature of Chio-in is the floors of its verandahs and corridors. They are made of keyaki wood, the boards being loosely nailed down, so that, as one walks over them, they move slightly, and in rubbing against each other emit a gentle creaking noise. The sound is very pleasing, and so soft and musical as to suggest the twittering of birds. These floors, behind the main temple, are called by this most poetical of people uguisu-bari, or “nightingale floors,” (Buddha’s Vow) and they certainly add most wonderfully to the fascination of the temple. Under the eaves’ of the front gallery is an umbella (naga-e no kasa), said to have flown thither from the hands of a boy whose shape had been assumed by the Shinto god of Inari, guardian deity of this sanctuary. East of the main temple is the Library, containing a complete set of the Buddhist canon.

Higashiyama-ku is the site of many other beautiful temples. Its slopes are densely wooded with pine and maple-trees, and in spring-time the green of the forests is everywhere the ground-work for an embroidery of cherry-blossoms. From these lovely woods at least a dozen temples peep. Chio-in is the grandest, and Kiyomizu-dera the most picturesque.


  • In lotus-land Japan by Herbert George Ponting. London, Macmillan and co., limited, 1910.
  • JAPAN. Described and Illustrated by the Japanese. Written by Eminent Japanese Authorities and Scholars. Edited by Captain F. Brinkley (1841 – 1912) of Tokyo Japan. With an Essay on Japanese Art by Kakuzo Okakura (1860 – 1929) Director of the Imperial Art School at Tokyo Japan. 1897.
  • A handbook for travellers in Japan, including Formosa by John Murray (Firm); Chamberlain, Basil Hall, 1850-1935; Mason, W. B. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
red, sun, Japan, Mon, Nisshōki, Hinomaru

Leave a Reply