They appear when the rainy season is over (this is the typical rainy season since, in deference to all Japanese clichés, rainy season in Japan is 365 days a year) to welcome and accompany the upcoming summer and often they are first heard and then seen since they are the size of a small upturned cup and they are made of thin glass often invisible to the passerby’s eye. They are called “furin” (風鈴) that is “wind bells” and their name is descriptive because this is what they do: they produce sound by a small clapper with a strip of paper called “tanzaku” (短冊) attached on its end and moved around by the wind.
Although in their present form they first appeared in the Edo period, when the Japanese learned the manufacture of glass by the Portuguese and they became so popular that in the beginning of summer they were sold on the streets by peddlers, their history is very long and starts at the time when most Japanese were farmers and they used furin made of wood or bamboo to ward of birds and animals; another version introduces in this discussion a kind of Chinese divination which, on its trip to Japan was lost leaving behind the sound and the object producing it. Maybe it is indeed so but personally I find the farmers’ origin more plausible: living close to nature you learn to care about the slightest change in the wind since the comforting summer breeze might become the lethal typhoon that will bring famine and disaster.
From weathervanes and scarecrows, furin were transformed thanks to their sound to a defense against metaphysical evil and with the name “futaku” (風鐸) they moved, now made of bronze, from the farms to the roof corners of the Buddhist temples. With time, glass and then iron took the place of bronze, their size shrunk so they could fit in every home, they became attached to the hanging ferneries called “tsurishinobu” (釣りしのぶ) and their creation turned into an art since a blemish on the glass or a bad calculation in the length of the tanzaku will destroy the sound whereas a bad-written haiku poem on the tansaku itself will destroy the aesthetic of the whole furin. And even though the postwar way of life and the urban congestion have made them a nuisance for some, Japanese summer wouldn’t be the same without their high-piched sound and the cool sense it, actually or synesthetically, declares.