‘Time could be cleansed with a new name’ [book review]

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

It’s been a while since I cried over a book and, it must be said, I didn’t expect it to be this one. ‘Kitasuna’, the chapter in Anna Sherman’s The Bells of Old Tokyo that sees her visiting a museum to learn about the fire-bombing of 1945, caught me completely unawares with its breath-taking simplicity, its understated portrayal of someone learning for the first time about an event too horrifying truly to comprehend. The nuance with which Sherman brings this often-untold story into the framework of her narrative, quoting from a printed eyewitness testimony and her own conversation with its author, is the polar opposite of drama, but on top of everything that had come before it, it had the power to make me weep.

The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman

There is in general a haunting melancholy to this book, a poignancy that made me instantly fall in love. Tokyo is a city I have always dreamed of, but it has always appeared to me as an exercise in modernity. A fast-paced, overachieving, always-on kind of place, a shifting mirage of towers and traffic and lights. It is all this, Sherman makes clear to us; but beneath the gleaming, constantly evolving surface there are other layers too, hidden depths of meaning, the city that Tokyo once used to be. In her attempt to uncover this vanished metropolis, Sherman has written a book that is heavy – beautifully so – with loss.

Back before Tokyo was Tokyo, there was a place called Edo. Ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns, it was one of the world’s largest cities, a centre of culture and science and learning, a warren of power and ambition. It was also the giver of time – not only was the Edo period (1603–1868) named for it, but the city itself was peppered with bells, rung every hour to indicate the passing of the days. Over time, the voices of these chimes have been silenced, the bells looted or sold or hidden, destroyed by earthquakes, requisitioned in war. A long-time resident of Tokyo, Anna Sherman sets out on a journey through her adopted city, a journey in search of those long-lost bells and, along with them, the past.

There are many layers to The Bells of Old Tokyo. The book is divided into relatively short chapters, each devoted to a particular neighbourhood. Each too recounts an episode from Tokyo’s past, from the demise of the last shogun to the abolition of Daylight Savings Time. Then there are Sherman’s personal memories of life in Tokyo, including the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and her ongoing friendship with a coffee-shop owner. The book traces her relationship with the city, from the early days of struggling to learn Japanese to final meetings before she leaves for good, her sudden distance from the place in which she lived for so long imbuing her words with a tangible melancholy. It is satisfying, this melancholy, never overwrought. A bittersweet feeling that stems from the acceptance that, in the end, all things must pass.

Although her search for the lost bells of Tokyo paves the way for Sherman to explore a fascinating city, diving into its past and retelling parts of a history unknown to many in the West, The Bells of Old Tokyo is more than just a travelogue, more even than a memoir. It is also a deeply interesting discussion of time – a complex subject, yes, but one that Sherman explores in an accessible manner, charting its development from the preserve of hourly tolling bells to a concept defined by the movement of atoms. From ancient temple bells she goes to visit a clock museum, illustrating how at some point in the past ‘the idea of time itself changed: it became mechanical’. Looking to the future, she incorporates Einstein and his theory of relativity, explaining just enough to whet our interest, never so much that her writing becomes dry. On the contrary, there is a rhythm to her narrative, a mesmerising progression that echoes the ticking of a clock.

The measurement of time and what it means to us is, of course, a philosophical matter, and Sherman includes many meditations on life and death. She speaks to a monk who tells her that time is a framework from which ‘“the dead have slipped out”’; another conversation, with a descendant of the Tokugawa shoguns, leads to the sombre conclusion that ‘“being sentimental about the past leads to darkness”’. Of all the different philosophies of time that manifest themselves here, one of the ideas I found most fascinating is how Japanese time is divided into imperial epochs, with each fresh accession to the throne marking the beginning of a new period. Although this hasn’t been done for some time, it used to be the case that new periods could begin within these epochs, usually when some catastrophe had occurred. ‘It was believed that disasters polluted time, and that time could be cleansed with a new name,’ she explains. Seen in the context of the 2011 earthquake, or even the events we are living through now, there is something particularly poignant about this belief that history can be erased, that it is always possible to start afresh. That something as elemental as language might have the power to enable that.

There is much food for thought in The Bells of Old Tokyo – more than I had ever expected. I thought I would be getting a gentle stroll through a famous metropolis, an explanation of a past I know little about. Get this I did, but so much more as well: a thoroughly moving portrait of a city that believes it can outwit time even as it is inextricably bound to it, and a remarkable series of observations on what it means to be alive. Sherman’s prose is flowing and luminous, her descriptive passages taut with emotion, every detail chosen perfectly to illuminate the city as seen through her eyes. Reading this book, I found a different Tokyo – a city I still long to visit, but one that contains more than I ever would have known. Defying genres and expectations, The Bells of Old Tokyo is a masterpiece of travel writing: lyrical, generous, downright extraordinary.

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