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

REVIEW The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City

An elegant and absorbing tour of Tokyo and its residents

From 1632 until 1854, Japan's rulers restricted contact with foreign countries, a near isolation that fostered a remarkable and unique culture that endures to this day. In hypnotic prose and sensual detail, Anna Sherman describes searching for the great bells by which the inhabitants of Edo, later called Tokyo, kept the hours in the shoguns' city.

An exploration of Tokyo becomes a meditation not just on time, but on history, memory, and impermanence. Through Sherman's journeys around the city and her friendship with the owner of a small, exquisite cafe, who elevates the making and drinking of coffee to an art-form, The Bells of Old Tokyo follows haunting voices through the labyrinth that is the Japanese capital: an old woman remembers escaping from the American firebombs of World War II. A scientist builds the most accurate clock in the world, a clock that will not lose a second in five billion years. The head of the Tokugawa shogunal house reflects on the destruction of his grandfathers' city: A lost thing is lost. To chase it leads to darkness.

The Bells of Old Tokyo marks the arrival of a dazzling new writer who presents an absorbing and alluring meditation on life in the guise of a tour through a city and its people. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City

A basic description of the book (ex-pat woman uses a search for the time bells of old Tokyo to explore the modern city) fails to convey its charm.
The prose is clear and thoughtful; the history 'lessons' range over events dating from the earliest days of the city to the earthquake of 2011. The people the author meets (from the man who runs a coffee shop to temple monks and on to those who run small museums) are each interesting in their own way.
I was quietly enchanted by the book; the author gives the reader a lot to ponder in a short page count. I found the chapter notes to be almost as enjoyable as the text.

I have only an outsider's knowledge of Tokyo, bolstered somewhat by my father's stories of his trips there in the late 1950s-mid 1960s. I would hazard a guess that anyone familiar with Tokyo would have a deeper reaction to the book than I did. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City I really wanted to love this book. I ordered it from the UK before it was even published in Canada because I couldn't wait to read it. But I think it might be my biggest let down of the year.

This book is (supposedly) an examination of the cultural changes of Japan framed through the author's journey to visit all the sites of Japan's Bells of Time, which for hundreds of years were rung all over the city to signal important moments of the day. This book isn't that, though. What it is is a hot mess. This structure is completely abandoned without any apparent rhyme or reason, casually and apparently just at the whim of the author. There is no cohesion, no semblance of a narrative to tie it all together. It's a wild, bumpy ride throughout a staccato history of Japan.

I think I could forgive this narrative whiplash were it not for the author's complete lack of regard for her reader. She rarely if ever gives context, explanations, or even definitions for very, very critical pieces of information to understand what she's talking about. For anyone interested in learning more about Japan but doesn't have even a basic understanding of its history, this book is not for you. I spent more time googling basic words, like shogun (which is essential to understanding anything in this text) and which would've taken the author one sentence of context to help me out.

I was so excited to learn more about the history of Japan, and was so disappointed to find this book so disorganized and inaccessible. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City

Visit the locations in the novel

A very interesting concept for a book and a guide book to Tokyo. It’s not a novel , guide book or any one of these things, but a mix of many and that’s what so appealing. We travel and discover the land and its people with Anna, who as an outsider, has an interesting view of this fascinating country and city.

I loved the idea of the bells and the concept of time. Something we take for granted now, but which started off very differently in other countries is something which always fascinates me. Time seems so set now, but it’s actually one of the most changeable and fleeting concepts. I am still amazed when they change the clocks for daylight saving time and the idea of time zones, but that’s another story.

The language is lyrical and fascinating. The author manages to blend the ideas she has and places she comes across in the most lyrical of ways:

“I would take not the elevated expressway routes, or the Yamanote Line railway that rings the heart of Tokyo, but trace areas in which the bells could be heard, the pattern that on a map looked like raindrops striking water. Winds could carry the ringing notes far out into Tokyo Bay; or the rain silence them as if they had never existed.

A circle has an infinite number of beginnings. The direction I walked would change, just as the circles on the map could change.

There were boundaries, but they were not fixed.”

Sherman’s Tokyo is a compelling one at that. If I could afford to, I would fly there right now, this book in hand, and use it as the most unique guides and insights I could ever hope to find. It’s essentially a travelogue mapped out by the city’s bells through time. If this book were a clock, the hour hand would be the one showcasing the main ideas and areas of the city, with the second hand whirling around with interesting facts. Anna takes us with us on the journey and we visit the bells that still exist. I found this to be a very enticing way of introducing someone to a city or even guiding them around one you might know. It’s an extremely clever way of travelling around a city and getting to know it in so many interesting ways. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City Ufff, reading this was like wading through tar. I almost dropped it but then I noticed there's almost hundred pages of notes and source material listing, so I thought to skim through a few dozen pages I had left.
I wanted to like this, little images of Japanese history sounded interesting. But it was too fragmented, tried sometimes too hard to be poetic and I just didn't find the overall style enjoyable to read at all. Shame, because there are fascinating historical tidbits and experiences here and there and the author has interviewed some interesting people but it's just presented as a jumble. And I can see the coffee house chapters were important to the author but certainly don't help with the already jumpy structure.
So, nope, I can't recommend this. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City 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. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City


This had an almost hypnotic effect on me. The subject is fascinating, and Sherman does an amazing job of tracking her physical (and cerebral) journey through the city. The language is sharp too, there’s not a wasted word in the entire book. Whether you know the city or not I’d highly recommend it. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City I don't know if I (sub)consciously avoided travelogues since 2020 because I would miss travel even more. But irrespective of that, there was something very poignant about the title itself, so I just had to pick it up. The good news is that it lived up to its promise. Anna Sherman does in this book what my favourite books about places do - let me travel in time and space.
The second part of the title - Meditations on Time and a City - gives a very good idea of the book's focus. It talks about both the changes in Edo (before it came to be called Tokyo) with time, as well as its changing relationship with time itself. Like many other concepts, the Japanese have many words for time according to the context. Before its citizens started using manufactured devices to tell time, Edo's time was told by the ringing of bells. At first, there were three, but by 1720, as the population touched a million, six more were added. And these bells are what the narrative follows.
With each, there are stories attached. Origin stories of the locality and the bell, and its journey through times good and bad - victories, wars, earthquakes, fires and so on. Nihonbashi - the Zero Point has its prison stories (prisoners let out during a fire would voluntarily return because they'd be found and killed otherwise). Asakusa has its beauty and murder story. Akasaka has the smallest bell, and love-hotel rooms which cater to any and all fetishes, with protocols that outsiders will find difficult to understand. Mejiro is home to the stone that honours the rebel samurai Chūya Marubashi. Nezu has a fascinating tale of clockmaking and how time shifted from personal to shared, and 'the idea of time became mechanical.' Ueno, where the battle in 1868 marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. A few months later, Edo would start making way for Tokyo. Where the bell-ringer knows he is probably the last of his kind. Kitasuna, where more than 700,000 bombs landed on 9-10 March 1945, and caused the deaths of more people than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The book did a fantastic job of transporting me to the time and place. The words somehow gave me a visceral feeling of the place, the emotions of the different people who lived there, their daily existence, the events they have gone through, and sometimes I tended to see the place as a person too - changing, shifting, sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly. It was like walking through the lanes. The one thing that I wish the book also had was maps so I could also get a better directional sense of where these places are.
I think, after this book, when I do visit Tokyo (Edo), I will see it through new eyes and old stories. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City This was really interesting.
Not only a history of how time has been told and measure in Japan, but history of different areas of Tokyo as well. There was plenty in here that was new information and I’ve learned quite a bit. It was also really nice to read at a slow pace and chip my way through it slowly.

It’s my hope that I’m going to keep a non fiction book going all the time. Even if I don’t necessarily pick it up every day, even if it takes me weeks to read something. Slowly does it. I don’t want to do a set number of nonfiction books in the year. I just want to read and see what happens. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City From BBC Radio 4:
For over 300 years, Japan closed itself to outsiders, developing a remarkable and unique culture. During its period of isolation, the inhabitants of the city of Edo - later known as Tokyo - relied on its public bells to tell the time.

Anna Sherman tells of her search for the bells of Edo, exploring the city of Tokyo and its inhabitants and the individual and particular relationship of Japanese culture - and the Japanese language - to time, tradition, memory, impermanence and history.

Through Anna’s journeys around the city and her friendship with the owner of a small, exquisite cafe, who elevates the making and drinking of coffee to an art-form, The Bells of Old Tokyo presents a series of hauntingly memorable voices in the labyrinth that is the metropolis of the Japanese capital - an aristocrat plays in the sea of ashes left by the Allied firebombing of 1945; a scientist builds the most accurate clock in the world, a clock that will not lose a second in five billion years.

Abridged by Polly Coles
Read by Amanda Root

Produced by Clive Brill
A Brill production for BBC Radio 4 The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City After living in Japan for about three years and working in a library in Tokyo for two of them, I've read a number of gaijin memoirs. This is the first one that thoughtfully engaged with Tokyo and really represented how it feels to be here. It was poetic, it was research-heavy without being overbearing, it was nuanced, and, most importantly, there was no ego. If you are the kind of person who likes to walk around neighborhoods, then please read this. The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City