Orin hand hammered and carefully tuned Buddhist bells

Orin - hand-hammered and carefully tuned Buddhist bells

Orin hand hammered and carefully tuned Buddhist bells

Orin brass bells, also known as keisu, play a significant role in Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. Typically, during sutra reading, the priest will sound the orin bell at the beginning to align their voice's pitch with the bell's tone. During the service, the bells serve different purposes, such as improving the practitioners' focus and concentration or calming their minds.

A single orin bell produces three distinct sounds: kan, otsu, and mon. The first sound, kan, disappears within two or three seconds after the bell is struck. The second sound, otsu, is a humming sound that resonates longer than the first. Finally, the third sound, mon, is a deep tone.

Orin bells are carefully crafted by specialist artisans, many of whom are based in Takaoka in Toyama Prefecture, a city that has been famed for its metal craftsmanship since the early Edo period (1603 - 1867 CE). With the growing importance of Buddhism in the region - especially Jōdo Shinshū (Pure Land Buddhism) - from the 15th century onwards, Takaoka emerged as a manufacturing centre of Buddhist altar fittings and ritual utensils. These days, 95% of Japan's copperware is produced in Takaoka.

Orin are manufactured from three separate pieces of brass that are welded together: the bell's base, the body, and the rim. The body of the bell has a thickness of approximately 1mm. The thinness of the metal on the base and body ensures that the sound resonates well within the orin. In contrast, the rim, which affects the tone, is crafted from thick metal.

Once joined, the brass bells go through a repeated process of being hammered by hand, which progressively strengthens the structure, and then fired in a kiln, until the desired shape is achieved. There are over 100 hammers available for this process, each with a specific application. It typically requires around 15 hammers to create a single orin.

The final and most crucial stage of the production process is tuning. During this stage, the artisan relies entirely on their own senses as they hammer and tap the upper portion of the bell while listening to the sounds it produces. The process is repeated until the desired undulating sounds are achieved.

The timbre of an orin bell evolves and matures over time with regular use. It is said that the most beautiful tone is achieved after 30 to 50 years of use. 

Today, there are only ten skilled artisans left in Japan who specialize in crafting Buddhist bells.