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'The Bells of Old Tokyo': Present-day Tokyo explored through its historical soundscape

by Patrick Parr

Contributing Writer

When reading Anna Sherman’s “The Bells of Old Tokyo,” one may envision themselves standing on a bridge just before sunrise, wrapped in a thick fog. This temporary suspension of place and time is intentional, and Sherman, an editor and former longtime resident of Tokyo, went on a journey of her own while writing it.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City, by Anna Sherman.
352 pages
PICADOR, Travel.

“I wrote (‘Bells’) to understand where I was, and the people around me,” she says.

Starting in 2009, “Bells” underwent a series of genre transformations before arriving at its ancient-bell-themed destination. The result is a book that seamlessly blends elements of memoir, history and travel into an original journey of self-discovery.

Sherman was inspired by William Dalrymple’s timeless “City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi,” a book that illuminates the complexities of India, in particular the seven “dead” cities within the country’s capital.

After moving to Japan in 2001, Sherman realised that she couldn’t find a book such as Dalrymple’s to describe Tokyo — a city that, to first-time visitors, can appear maze-like in its configuration.

“Tokyo is difficult to know for many reasons,” Sherman says. “It’s huge, of course, but it’s also hard to know because the city shifts like a kaleidoscope. Many contemporary place names are sometimes not identical to their historic counterparts.”

Enter the nine Edo Period (1603-1868) bells of time, located in Asakusa, Ueno, Mejiro, Shinjuku, Ichigaya, Akasaka, Shiba, Nihonbashi and Yokokawa-Honjo.

“That concept (of following the bells) just evolved — I needed a way to shrink the city, to fold it up like origami,” Sherman says. “The bells showed me how to structure geography and time.”

A short summary of “Bells” doesn’t do it much justice. It’s a sensitive book, and readers looking for a straightforward ABC plotline may find themselves frustrated. “Bells” is lyrical — a meditative blend of historical research, original interviews and personal experience.

The most delightful part of the book lies in Sherman’s conversations with residents of Tokyo. As she herself admitted, she often felt as hapless as Natsume Soseki’s Botchan when speaking with them about love, time and forgotten history. Still, Sherman was able to coax unique insights from many of her interviewees.

One of them, Kazuyoshi Suzuki, a director at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, spoke to Sherman at the Japanese Embassy in London about how “stillness” is interpreted differently between England and Japan.

“Here (in England), because originally you thought that God controlled nature, when everything is quiet, you feel peaceful,” Suzuki says. “In Japan, it’s quite the opposite. We feel happiest when there’s a commotion, a racket. But when things are still, we get nervous, because quiet means danger.

“If it’s quiet in England, that means your monsters and ghosts are sleeping. But for us, when we hear crickets or birds, we can relax. Our ghosts come out when everything is silent.”

“Bells” has its own streak of harmonic stillness, perhaps best conveyed in Sherman’s impressions of Shinjuku.

“Shinjuku is the limit of my knowledge, the future city where I am already a ghost; unknowable and unknown,” she says.

“Bells” is unknowable, but brilliantly so.