Temple of 1,000 bells

by Kenzo Moriguchi

KYOTO — After an unusually hot summer, nothing is more welcome than the arrival of autumn breezes. Fall evenings in Kyoto are made even more pleasant by the bright moon shining overhead as the air is filled with a symphony of seasonal insects.

One particularly associated with this season is the bell cricket, Hemoeogryllus japonicus, called suzumushi in Japanese. Among Kyoto’s estimated 1,700 temples is one — Suzumushi-dera, in Nishigyo Ward — named after this cricket. Although its real name is Myotokuzan-Kegonji Temple, the 278-year-old place of worship is renowned for its bell crickets.

Normally, the male crickets “sing” for about 20 days in autumn. In this period, before they die, they are courting females by rubbing “pegs” on their wings together to produce their characteristic sound in a way similar to running a finger along a comb. Visitors to Suzumushi-dera, however, can enjoy their soothing, bell-like sound not only in autumn but throughout the year.

According to Shogen Katsura, the temple’s chief priest, around 30 years ago a former priest called Shoei Katsura, who was deeply moved by the insects’ beautiful sound, found a way to breed them after 30 years of trying. As a result of his efforts, large numbers are now displayed year-round in glass cases kept at a constant 23 degrees.

Unlike “wild” suzumushi, which usually only sing in the darkness at night and when undisturbed, those in the temple’s showcases are constantly “ringing their bells” despite the daylight and the visitors’ presence.

The reason for this, explained the priest, is that even before they are hatched the insects have been exposed to daylight.

There is a lesson here, he says: If insects can adapt to new environments, why can’t humans? You can achieve anything, if you only try.

On arriving at the temple, visitors are served green tea and a small sweet. In the large room where the insects are displayed, the chief priest delivers a sermon — using a microphone as the crickets are so loud.

The temple is especially busy in autumn. The priest advises visitors to avoid weekends and holidays as they may have to wait an hour or two to enter the suzumushi room.

He also points out that the sound of suzumushi might not be music to everyone’s ears, because the beauty of their song is only heard by those with clear, guilt-free minds . . .