The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman

These lovely, understated ruminations on time and Tokyo will please those interested in Japanese culture, language or history–or lovers of any city, anywhere.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City is Anna Sherman’s exploration of a city that is not originally her own, but her perspective is perhaps all the more closely attentive, thoughtful and serious. Through Tokyo’s Bells of Time, which rang out the hours for hundreds of years, Sherman examines many aspects of both city and time. Her prose is careful, contemplative, even solemn. The result is philosophy, travel writing, elegy and love letter.

“Tokyo is one vast timepiece,” begins Sherman. “Time is counted out in incense sticks; in LEDs; and in atomic lattice clocks,” and in so many other ways she will consider. Time is ignored, too, in this city where residents “have their eyes fixed on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past.” Sherman never states the reasons for her preoccupation with time, clocks and Tokyo’s past, but her book thrums with it. She views the first Bell of Time, at a former prison at Nihonbashi, and the smallest, in Akasaka; seeks the lost bell of Mejiro; meets the man who rings the bell at Ueno; and visits a widow surrounded by “an island of old clocks” in Nezu. She also consults with numerous sources, modern and ancient, and studies the Japanese language and its translations. This is a narrator deeply immersed and committed to her subject; Sherman’s bibliography and notes are extensive for such a slim book.

A point of stillness at the center is a special coffee shop where Sherman makes a friend. “Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee.” Daibo is the one character she returns to, and his influence is felt in her love for the city and in her questions.

“[Author and composer] Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing.” Sherman’s writing similarly respects white space as much as it does words: her approach is lyric and minimalist, and respectful of the culture she studies. An American living in Japan, she is sensitive to her outsider status, as when writing about the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo: “Growing up, I was part of the old soldiers’ we. I had never thought about what we had done to them.” She is present for the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima reactor explosions that followed, and her writing about these events is spare: “I bought tickets… I wanted to see Daibo… I said nothing.” At times, Sherman slides into prose poetry. “Mirrors and clocks in love hotels and the time they tell, the translucent sheeting over building sites, the streetlamps, the slopes, the signs I can read and the ones I can’t.”

The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bowls of green tea.

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