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The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time by Anna Sherman


The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time is one of those books it is hard to describe. It is a book about history and a book about the present. You might simply call it a book about culture. Anna Sherman takes us on an anecdotal ride through the city of Tokyo then and now – back when it was Edo, in the time of the shoguns, to the civil war, to the Second World War and into the twenty first century. She holds our attention with tales told at out-of-the-way coffee bars – tales of burning fires and ancient loss, as well as involving us in stories of modern art and earthquakes.


Tokyo is one of the biggest and fastest moving cities in the world. Sherman’s journey is geographical – at one point she describes the city’s geography in terms of the lines the hands make on the clock. But it is also a very personal journey, full of little interesting incidents and people. You don’t have to know anything about Japan to get a sense of the places and people. The main theme is Sherman’s interest in time, particularly the Time Bells, old bells that tolled the hours in pre-Western Japan. Throughout the course of the book, Sherman visits a clock museum, meets a clock maker and a clock artist. We dip into stories, engaging with people along with their spaces and days and years. Often, because of the meandering nature of the book, it didn’t matter when I put it down or picked it up. This is an account intricately and delicate told. It (excuse the pun) takes its time. It pauses and thinks. It will open your mind. The coffee house is an important place to Sherman and it feels almost like we have joined her for a conversation at the table in this scrapbook, or pot pourri of moments and places.


But even though the way in which the book is written might seem random, there is a unity in the book’s respect for Japanese time and its dedication to its subject matter. Chapter breaks are marked by quotes from literature or famous people, or old sutras, that make us pause, before we begin again. The last third of the book is entirely a Notes section. Sherman addresses the nature of time itself. Time, the book seems to say, is individualised. Before Japan became Westernised, up until the nineteenth century, clocks did not tell straightforward hours as we think of them. Clocks told time dependent on nature and the seasons. In early Japan, the day had twelve hours and these were accorded to the twelve hours of the Zodiac. Some hours were longer. People experience time differently. Time is individual, and we lose something when we conform to others’ sense of time. Sherman even touches on Einstein’s theory of relativity relating to time – time will move more slowly closer to an object of large mass – meaning clocks tick faster in space.


The Bells of Old Tokyo is an interesting journey into history, geography, culture, time, and how people live. Recommended for anyone going to Tokyo, or who wants to take the chance to travel virtually. Well worth the time.


Reviewer: Susannah Whaley

Macmillan Publishers, $37.99

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