The Bells Of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman

5 out of 5 stars

Until 1854 Japan was a close society. Outsiders were not permitted to land and the residents of the country were not allowed to travel to other places. Whilst this introspection for most countries would be unhealthy, in Japan, it helped form a culture unlike any other in the world. The shoguns had tight control over the city of Edo’s inhabitants and they kept daily time using bells. The city was to become Tokyo and Sherman is in the country to search for those great bells.

When it was Edo, there were only three bells in the city, One was in Nihonbashi, the prison at the heart of the city, one near the north-eastern temple and the third in Ueno near the Demon Gate. As the city grew a further eight bells were needed. The bells define when to rise, when to eat, when to work and the time to sleep.

Besides the metal plaque was a map showing the sound range of each bell, a series of circles overlapping each other like raindrops in a still pool. Raindrops frozen at the moment they strike water.

The composer Yoshimura Hiroshi had written a book called Edo’s Bells of Time, in this he travelled far and wide across the city listening for the sounds that would have been present 500 years ago. Mostly they are now swamped by the noises of our modern world, but they are still there if you know where to go and how to listen. Inspired by this Sherman decides that she wants to see these places where the bells once tolled.

Her hotel room is opposite a huge glass building, so she asks to move to another room. That room is overlooking the Hibiya and the canals that ring the imperial palace, the city had vanished. She heads to where the first Bell of Time used to be. Now not a prison, it is a sterile playground now but the bell still hangs in a tower, guarded by a dragon and is now silent apart for once a year when it is rung. The groundsman shows her where the prisoners used to be executed and then goes back to brushing the ground.

This is the first of her steps back in time to discover more about these bells, and she does get to see and hear some of them too, including one bell that was first cast in 698. She sees all these things as an outsider, someone who has not had a Japanese upbringing and therefore is not aware of the subtle customs that form part of the fairly rigid society in the past and the nuances that still are present in the modern city of Tokyo.

One constant is her travels around the city is the coffee bar of Diabo Katsuji. It was not a place that you would discover by accident, you had to know it was at the top of the narrow stairs. In a city that was constantly changing minute by minute, this was a place of statis. He was a legendary coffee maker who roasted his coffee each morning while reading a paperback. She didn’t realise just how famous he was until later on.

One Tokyo was going to sleep while the other was waking up. The two cities share the same space, but never meet.

This is a wonderful book and I found her prose sublime. Sherman is fascinated by almost every part of the city and the people there, from the ritual of the coffee being made, the way that Tokyo felt almost like a living pulsating being at times and a few pages later she is away from the mass of humanity, visiting an island of old clocks, or observing the rituals to enter a sanctuary, a silent place in the centre of a city that never sleeps. But this is about the bells and the stories of the people that struck the bells thrice, twelve times a day. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

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6 Comments

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds absolutely lovely! I too have a hankering to visit Japan but I suspect I would be looking for old Japan (in the same way I would be looking for old Paris if I ever visited that city!!)

    • Paul

      I have been to Paris a few times and it is a fantastic city. One day I aim to go to Japan, just not sure when. Well worth reading the book though to get a felling for the country

  2. Jeremy Bassetti

    Great review, Paul. Have you seen our interview with Ana? She’s sharp as a tack: https://www.travelwritingworld.com/the-bells-of-old-tokyo-with-anna-sherman/

    • Paul

      Thank you, Jeremy. I hadn’t realised that you had interviewed her, I have only listened to a few via YouTube so far. Must find time to listen to the others.

  3. Liz Dexter

    This sounds amazing!

    • Paul

      It is

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