The Bells of Old Tokyo

Anna Sherman

4.5 based on 2 ratings & 2 reviews on Goodreads.com
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16 May 2019
9781529000450
352 pages
Synopsis

'The best book I have read about Tokyo written this century' David Peace

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. In her remarkable book, 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 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 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. A sculptor eats his father’s ashes while the head of the house of Tokugawa reflects on the destruction of his grandfather’s city (‘A lost thing is lost. To chase it leads to darkness’).

The result is a book that not only engages with the striking otherness of Japanese culture like no other, but that also marks the arrival of a dazzling new writer as she presents an absorbing and alluring meditation on life through an exploration of a great city and its people.

The Bells of Old Tokyo is part personal memoir, part cultural history, but wholly unique. The fragile, fragmentary poetry of its prose so beautifully captures the transience of Tokyo time, the constant cycle of destruction and reconstruction, and the nostalgia for that which has been lost and yet wonder at all that remains to be found. It is the best book I have read about Tokyo written this century, and deserves to take its place alongside the works of Donald Richie, Edward Seidensticker and Paul Waley as one of the great interpretations of this great city.

David Peace

If a more soulful and original book on Japan has been published in the past few years, I haven’t seen it. Anna Sherman ventures deep into the land and its silences with an attention to the spaces between words, a lightly worn erudition and a poetic grace – a feel for all that she doesn’t have to say – that any of the rest of us might envy. This is the rare book that looks past the zany and clashing surfaces of Japan to excavate its heart, and everything we’ll never be able to explain about the place, even as we bow before it.

Pico Iyer

A tour-de-force mapping, in four dimensions, of the amazing place we call “Tokyo.” I realized I barely know the city . . . So much is dealt with so beautifully – Mishima, the 1945 firebombs, the tangle that is Shinjuku . . . Wonderful . . .

Liza Dalby