Origin of the Pagoda Bell

Origin of the Pagoda Bell


Editor’s Note: Reading’s most famous landmark is clearly the Pagoda atop Mt. Penn. Its story has been oft-told: How it was built by William A. Witman, Jr., in 1908; how it was meant to be a luxury resort, a project scuttled by the denial of a liquor license; how it went into receivership and was bought by businessman Jonathan Mould and his wife, the former Julia E. Bell, in 1910; and how it was ‘sold, “with 10 acres of surrounding land, to the City of Reading by the Moulds for just $1. But one “mystery” about Billy Witman ‘s Pagoda remained-what was the origin of the unique oriental bell Witman acquired to hang from the ceiling on top floor? It fell toAkio Sashima, of Hiroshima, Japan (an Albright College student in 1995-1996) to provide the answer. It follows.)

According to the Pagoda Skyline, Inc., the bell was purchased by Mr. Witman upon the recommendation of a japanese family living in Reading during the time of the Pagoda’s construction. It was cast in Obata, Japan, in 1739 by a man named Mikawaya, who along with 47 other men – presented the bell to a Buddhist temple in Yakuosan, now part of the City of Tokyo.

“Wow, what an old bell!,” might be your response. However, my response was not so simple. I thought it was worth investigating the roots of the bell in more detail. I began to do so early in April of 1995.

First of all, I looked for “Yakuosan” on a map of Japan. I could not find it. So I called my father in Japan and asked him about it. “I’d guess it’s not a name of a place,” he told me, “but a part of some temple’s name. Send me the inscription on the bell. I will ask someone who can read old manuscripts to analyze it.” A week later he called and told me that an historian, Mr. Fujiwara, read the inscription and found the temple is in Ogose, Iruma County in Saitama Prefecture.

I wrote to the Ogose Education Board. Officers of its continuing education department, Mr. Naka and Mr. Ishikawa, kindly replied and told me that the temple was probably in the City of Hanno, which is next to Ogose.

Another letter was sent to the Hanno Education Board. The officer of its continuing education department, Mr. Sonehars, sent some materials and a letter that said the temple “Yakuosan-Choshozenji (Choshoji)” had definitely been in his city. However, it did not exist anymore.

According to Mr. Sonehara, the temple was closed at the end of the 19th century. Fortunately, however, some documents had been saved by a nearby temple, “Furinzan-Chokozenji (Chokoji),” also in Hanno. I thought it would be worth visiting there during my summer vacation.

On July 25th, I went back home to Hiroshima. On August 7th and 8th, I visited the City of Hanno, Saitama Prefecture, which is located north of Tokyo. The City of Hanno is a very historic place surrounded by a beautiful environment. Its history goes back to B.C. 10,000. There remain many cultural assets. Until recently, the city’s main industry was forestry. But today, the city is a dormitory suburb of Tokyo. Many people commute to Tokyo on the notoriously crowded trains.

On the morning of August 7th, I visited the Hanno Education Board. As I did not have an appointment, Mr. Sonehara could not deal with me. Instead, another officer guided me about for about five hours.

First, we visited the temple “Chokoji.” It stands in a rural area, about 15 minutes from downtown Hanno. This temple is regarded as the most important cultural asset of Saitama Prefecture. The main building was built in 1590. We heard many useful stories from the 28th Chief-Priest, Mr. Suzuki. According to Mr. Suzuki, the temple “Choshoji” was opened in 1608 and closed in 1881 because its 30 supporters could not keep it going.

Several years ago, a daughter of another temple’s Chief-Priest visited the Pagoda in Reading and found the bell was from “Choshoji” and told some people in Hanno. A descendent of a supporter, Mr. Yoshida, was one of them and now is seeking to return the bell to Japan. Chief-Priest Suzuki also wants to have it returned and made an object of worship.

“If possible, I want to return the bell to Japan,” he told me. “I guess it is impossible. But, anyway, I am glad to know where the bell is and how it has been preserved. I wish the City ofHanno and City of Reading could become sister-cities because of this interesting connection. And someday I want to visit Reading and the Pagoda with some descendents of the (temple “Choshoji”) supporters.

The next day, August 8th, I visited “Chokoji” alone. Mr. Suzuki showed me some old documents which told of the history of”Choshoji,” and a small gong which has been used at “Choshoji.” Then we visited the place where “Choshoji” had existed; it took just five minutes from “Chokoji.” Today only the tombs of the successive Chief-Priests drearily stand there. Nothing remains other than the tombs.

After that we visited a small shrine which preserves some relics of”Choshoji.” In the shrine the principal image of Buddha had been preserved. I heard that some people are still worshipping it today.

I promised Mr. Suzuki, the Chief-Priest, that I would tell people in Reading, Pennsylvania, about our findings. Unfortunately, I did not find out why and how the bell traveled from the old “Chosjoki” temple to the City of Reading. That is what people in both Hanno and Reading have been asking me. No documents on the Pagoda bell’s travels have been found in either city. But we have confirmed that the Pagoda bell definitely came from the “Choshoji” (or “Choshozenji”) Buddhist temple in the City of Hanno sometime around 1907.

This is really a great story. I hope people of both cities will take advantage of our findings and begin a friendly relationship by communicating with each other.

POSTSCRIPT: This article was ‘Appendix A “in a special paper of “independent study” by student Akio Sashima for Prof Phillip A. Eyrich at Albright in the Spring of 1996. The full title of the thesis was “Think Globally, Act Locally: The Role of the Sister City in the 21st Century.” On November 19, 1996, young Sashima was the host at a dinner at the Sheraton Berkshire for visitors from Hanno, Japan, at which a video tape of the students research on the Pagoda bell in Hanno was shown. While in Reading the Japanese visitors, which included Chief Priest Suzuki, visited the city’s Pagoda and participated in a ceremony at which the bell – the Choshoji temple bell – was the centerpiece.

Some other information needs to be added to this tale. In the Historical Review of the Fall of 1975 (Vol. XL, No. 4), the late local historian Wayne B. Homan wrote that Japanese residents of Reading in 1907-09, Mr.& Mrs. S. Mijyanaga, who operated a Japanese merchandise store at 607 Penn St., counseled Billy Witman on what kind of bell to get for his Pagoda.

Homan added: ‘Mr. Witman ordered the bell through the agency of A.A. Valentine of Broadway, New York City, an exporter and importer. It is possible that this was the same agent who supplied the Miyanaga family with their store material. The bell arrived in New York on April 9. 1907, and was shipped by the Reading Railroad to this city.”

What is still unknown, however, are the circumstances of the bell leaving Japan and what was its cost to Witman. 


This article originally appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.