Bell of Time: Following the echoes of ancient Edo

A bell rings out across Ueno, tolling the hour three times a day: 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. If you were to prick up your ears and follow the sound back to the source, you would arrive at the Toki no Kane, or ''Bell of Time,'' next to the Ueno Seiyoken restaurant. In this installment, we focus on the dependable sound that has marked the passage of time in the heart of Tokyo for centuries.

The bell towerUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A communal clock for an entire city

The belltower was erected on the site in 1666. At the time, the entirety of Ueno hill was considered part of Toeizan Kaneiji temple's precincts. Even today, the belltower belongs to the temple. It is said that there were more than ten similar belltowers throughout the city, radiating out around Edo Castle, from Ueno to Asakusa, Shiba, and Mejiro. Like a game of telephone, the bells would ring out in succession, after receiving a signal from Edo Castle. Back in the days before watches, the townspeople would tell the time by the number of bells sounded, according to the old lunar calendar.

"Bell of Time" in Ueno central parkUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The Bell of Time waits patiently on the elevated platform in Ueno Park. The current bell was cast in 1787.

Matsuo Basho's haik poem and "Bell of Time"Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

A poetic part of the soundscape

For the people of Edo, the bell was a familiar part of life and the aural landscape. Poet Matsuo Basho captured the rhythms of quotidian city life with the verse:

Blossoming clouds and

bells ring out in Ueno
...or Asakusa?

One can imagine Basho sitting in his hermitage in Fukagawa, the sky filled with billowy clouds of sakura in full bloom, when the sound of a distant bell drifted in his window, inspiring him to put brush to paper. The verse speaks to the idyllic passage of time in the peaceful Edo period.

Utagawa hiroshige `Tōto meisho Ueno Toeizan zenzu'Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Utagawa Hiroshige documented Kaneiji in “Famous places in the Eastern Capital: Toeizan Temple at Ueno.” 

Ring the "Bell of Time"Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

A percussive baton passed down through the ages

Apart from a few short interruptions during the Meiji era and the Second World War, the task of sounding the bell has been handed down through the generations. True to tradition, the bell is rung three times, as a cue to alert townspeople to begin counting. The bell is rung a further six times at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., and 12 times at noon. In June 1996, the sound of the bell was selected as one of the Ministry of the Environment’s “100 Soundscapes of Japan,” for the integral part it plays in the fabric of everyday life in Ueno.

Ueno central park surrounded by greeneryUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The bell can be heard throughout Ueno Park.

Shinobazu Pond and "Bell of Time"Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

The sound of the bell ripples out across Shinobazu Pond all the way to Ueno Hirokoji.

People who listen to the sound of the bell 3Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

The bell is a constant companion for the people who visit Ueno Park year-round to relax.

"Bell of Time" in the eveningUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A restful refrain

A short walk from the hustle and bustle of Ueno Station, Ueno Park is an uncommon oasis of calm and quietude in the heart of the city. Stepping into the park is akin to stepping back in time to an analog world. It’s said that, when the city is still asleep, the sound of the morning bell travels all the way to Uguisudani Station and Uenosakuragi. As the cityscape continues to evolve, it will do so to the rhythm of this ancient bell, a familiar friend to the locals and a beacon beckoning all visitors to Ueno.

' Bell of Time''Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Credits: Story

Courtesy of Implementation Committee for New Concept "Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture” (Ueno Cultural Park)

Photos: Tadashi Okochi
Text: Emi Iwamoto
Editing: Sayaka Tsukuda
Shooting&Editing: Daikichi Kawazumi, Tatsuki Wakamiya
Production: Hechikan Co.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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