Tokyo is one vast time-piece. Its little alleys and great avenues, its forgotten canals and temples, make up the face of a great watch. Its months and weeks are beat out in traffic bearing into the capital from the northern rice paddies. The city’s hours and minutes and seconds are meted out in buildings torn down and the ones that rise; in land reclaimed from the sea. Time is counted out with incense sticks; with LEDs; with atomic lattice clocks. It is measured by the lives of all who move within the Yamanote Line that circles the city’s old heart and the Kantō Plain beyond.
With this lyrical passage, Anna Sherman introduces The Bells of Old Tokyo, a fascinating book in which the author travels across Tokyo searching for the bells that were used to announce the time in the city before the advent of modern time-keeping. During these explorations, Sherman delves into the rich cultural and socio-political history of Tokyo to draw a rich and insighful portrait of the city through the ages.
Subtitled Travels in Japanese Time (or Meditations on Time and a City, depending on the edition), Sherman’s book touches on people, places and events through time, from the days of the Shoguns to 21st Century Japan, while also investigating time itself as a relative concept. The book’s chapters mix beautifully poetic musings and memories with rigorously researched historical facts, drawing on the knowledge of myriad advisors and written references — listed in the exhaustive notes, bibliography and acknowledgements sections, which offer their own historical nuggets or avenues to further insight. And between her wanderings, Sherman periodically takes time out to share with the reader her chats with the owner of her favorite Tokyo coffee shop.
The Bells of Old Tokyo is Sherman’s first book. Not quite a guide book, not exactly a novel, not really a historical text, nor a book of poetry, it’s a singular creation: a gloriously messy construction. For anyone familiar with Tokyo, it’s a rewarding read, and an engaging addition to the body of work on Japan and its culture.
PHOTO: Bell of Time, Tenryū-ji, Shinjuku
Our bell was different from the other bells, because it rang half an hour before the other ones did. That way the samurai who came to Naitō Shinjuku to play around in the pleasure quarters could get back to Edo Castle before the curfew sounded. It was called Oidashi O-Kane: the Get Back Home Bell.