I blame this collection on a photo I saw in the book Japanese Accents in Western Interiors. The popular book was the ‘manual’ for navy wives during our second tour in Japan showing not only what to buy, but how to collect and display Japan items in our homes. In one photo someone had attractively arranged a small collection of Japanese clay bells in an antique sewing box, and I decided to shamelessly copy the idea, especially since it involved hunting for and collecting more than one of a particular thing. I’d often seen the bells at places I’d visited, they weren’t too expensive, and looking for a comparable sewing box would give me a goal.
I never found the sewing box, but I did end up with my treasured collection of bells, called dorei in Japanese. Clay bells have been a part of Japanese culture for a long, long time – bells have been found that date back to the prehistoric Jomon period in Japan (10,000 B.C. – 3,000 B.C.). They were thought to be effective against evil spirits and may have also been used to call slaves and servants. In modern times, the small bells have become popular souvenir items and can be found for sale at temples, shrines and gift and souvenir shops. They are often given or purchased at New Years, especially bells depicting the current year’s zodiac animal.
Most of my bells recall a particular time and place of our times in Japan, and four of them were gifts from my son at New Years. The fugu (pufferfish) was purchased at a seaside resort on a trip with my students, the persimmon at Arashiyama outside of Kyoto on another to trip with the students, the clay head on one of my many trips to Mashiko, and the koinobori (carp banner) on a visit to Kamakura when my mom visited Japan. Two of the bells are actually made of iron – one was a gift from a friend when she traveled to the north of Japan, and I found the iron dragon at a Kyoto shrine.
I have to admit that I have a favorite: my Inu Hariko bell purchased on Nakamise-Dori (‘Central Town’), a street of shops that runs up to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Inu Hariko looks like a cat, but is actually a plucky little dog that symbolizes many things in Japanese folk tales (protection and loyalty, ease in childbirth, ability to recognize demons among others). Inu Hariko is a popular motif in Japan and can be found on many items, with clay bells one of the most popular.
I haven’t added to my collection on more recent travels to Japan, but I’m open to adding to it if a bell calls to me again.