Town hopes wind bells ring in some new vitality

by Tomoko Otake

The tinkling of some 3,000 glass wind bells in a small mountain town in Aichi Prefecture is not just a sign of summer but a sound of hope for community revitalization.

Beginning Sunday, the Odo district of the town of Asahi, a scenic, riverside community with a population of 370, will hold a summer festival whose main feature will be colorfully painted glass chimes.

During the first-ever event, which runs through Sept. 7, homes, stores and various monuments throughout the area will be adorned with the chimes, including a “furin” (wind-bell) dome, according to local residents.

Visitors will be urged to buy a wind bell for 200 yen, write a wish on an attached slip of paper and dedicate it to either of Odo’s two temples or its shrine.

The festivities will also include a ‘taiko” drum performance, a photo contest, flea markets and other events.

Located midway along the Yahagi River, Odo long prospered as a post-town for loggers sending timber down from the Kiso Valley, a major source of cedar and cypress.

It was also revered as a sacred community. Many people made pilgrimages to Odo and legend has it that the district was spared from a plague because of its religious power, according to Asahi official Koji Yabushita.

But construction of a dam about 5 km north of Odo in the early 1970s, as well as government subsidies, ruined the logging industry and sapped the area’s vitality, local residents said. As with many other rural areas across Japan, Odo saw its younger residents move to the cities in search of better jobs.

“The river was dying,” said Hideki Mishima, a local car dealer and auto repair shop owner who is organizing the wind bell event. “Our community was dying with it. We wondered if there was anything we could do to revive the community in a way that shows respect for nature.”

Locals groped for ideas to revive their once-prosperous community, and finally looked again toward the river, long a source of soothing summer breezes, Mishima said. Inspiration struck, and they decided to pin their hopes on a traditional seasonal ornament: the wind bell.

The bells are meant to remind people of the significance of the river, he said, adding that his hometown hopes the coming event translates into a main tourist draw.

The district received 900,000 yen from the town government and matched it with contributions from residents. But given the inexpensive nature of the festival, Mishima and a few other core organizers feared others might copy the idea, so the event was kept secret — even from locals — for months.

So when the festival was first announced in May, many locals were skeptical, not understanding its purpose or meaning, Mishima said.

As the event’s kickoff draws closer, however, locals are busy putting the final touches on their bell decorations, and are “more excited and united than any time in the past 20 years,” he said.