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Saturday, July 31, 1999

Time-honored craft may be blowing away

Staff writer

In Japan the sound of a furin (wind bell) tinkling in the breeze is believed to invoke a sense of coolness during a hot and humid summer.

At Shinohara Furin Seizo Honpo, established in 1915 and now the only glass furin studio left in Japan, about 500 furin are made a day. Yoshiharu Shinohara, the second-generation proprietor of the studio/shop, works side by side with his son Yutaka in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo. It's a family business, where his wife, daughter-in-law and several other employees help by painting the furin designs.

The 75-year-old craftsman has been making furin since childhood, and was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Asset of Edogawa Ward in 1982. However, he says that only recently was he able to start making furin the way that he wants to.

"You'll be able to attain the right shape in 10 years, but it takes at least 30 years to be able to create a furin that makes the sound you want when it tinkles in the wind," says Shinohara.

Shinohara started his apprenticeship in elementary school. His first task was to study shuji (Japanese calligraphy) at a private school for four years. He practiced painting at home for a year before actually learning the techniques of furin-making from his father.

According to Shinohara, there are three main features of Edo furin: It is made solely from glass; the furin's mouth has soft, serrated edges; and the design is painted on the inside, thus protecting it from rain and wind.

Furin made of metal or copper were first made in Japan during the Muromachi Period. Glass furin spread in the middle of Edo Period, after Chinese artisans taught Japanese the art of glass-blowing in Nagasaki.

The tradition began to die out, however, after World War II, and the number of furin studios gradually declined from 13 to eight. By 1955, seven of them had closed. Now Shinohara's studio is the only one left in the country.

In an attempt to revive the tradition, Shinohara came up with the idea of calling the glass furin "Edo furin," which recalls the period and the old capital.

The process of furin-making has several steps. Shinohara's son puts a glass tube into a kiln heated to 1,200 C and winds the glass onto the tip of it. He then blows through the tube while continuously turning it and produces a small ball called a kuchidama. Shinohara puts the same tube into the kiln and repeats the procedure, making a larger ball. This creates the shape of the completed furin.

Then, a long wire is poked through the tube to make a small hole in the glass ball. A clapper is eventually put through it, to which is attached the tanzaku, a small rectangular-shaped piece of paper bearing a poem.

In the last step his son adds a final layer to the ball. The ball is heated again in the kiln and the tube is blown downward, while being turned simultaneously. The furin is then cut from the glass tube with a pair of pliers, and the kuchidama is cut off the glass ball. The serrated edges around the ball's mouth determine what kind of sound it will make. The whole procedure of making a furin takes the Shinoharas a mere 30 seconds.

Shinohara says that nowadays people who live in cities tend to be annoyed by the sound of furin. He is currently thinking of creating a different type of furin that city dwellers might appreciate, such as furin that will tinkle like an instrument when one claps near it.

Shinohara is flexible, and says he is eager to change his ways to suit a changing society.

"Artisans must make something that sells well at that time. We cannot adhere to old things," he says with a big smile. "We have to change our ways according to the needs of the people at that time."

Shinohara Furin Seizo Honpo: 4-22-5 Minami-Shinozakicho, Edogawa Ward, Tokyo. (03) 3670-2512.

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