From 1632 until 1854, Japan’s rulers restricted contact with foreign countries, a near isolation that fostered a remarkable and unique culture that endures to this day. In hypnotic prose and sensual detail, Anna Sherman describes searching for the great bells by which the inhabitants of Edo, later called Tokyo, kept the hours in the shoguns’ city.
An exploration of Tokyo becomes a meditation not just on time, but on history, memory, and impermanence. 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 follows haunting voices through the labyrinth that is the Japanese capital: an old woman remembers escaping from the American firebombs of World War II. A scientist builds the most accurate clock in the world, a clock that will not lose a second in five billion years. The head of the Tokugawa shogunal house reflects on the destruction of his grandfathers’ city: “A lost thing is lost. To chase it leads to darkness.”
The Bells of Old Tokyo marks the arrival of a dazzling new writer who presents an absorbing and alluring meditation on life in the guise of a tour through a city and its people.
“Good travel writing is often hard to come by—it’s a delicate balance of bringing a destination to life while also informing of its noteworthy aspects, but Anna Sherman does so flawlessly.”—Japan Today
“In her haunting, beautiful debut travel narrative, Anna Sherman takes the reader along on her quest to find the bells of old Tokyo, illuminating a lost world hidden in plain sight . . . The Bells of Old Tokyo is an ambitious attempt to mirror that map, or is, rather, Sherman’s description of it. And it succeeds.”—South China Morning Post
"A fascinating portrait of a city and its people, epic and intimate at the same time."—The Weekly Times (AUS)
“Sherman’s writing is elegant and accessible, and the story of Tokyo quickly becomes the story of time itself.”—Uproxx, "Best Books of Summer 2019"
"The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift."—Julia Kastner, Shelf Awareness (starred review)
"A completely extraordinary book, unlike anything I have read before. At once modest in tone and vast in scale and ambition, The Bells of Old Tokyo extends in all directions, delicately wrought, precise, unfaltering, lucid and strange as a dream. I haven’t felt so excited about an investigation into place since I first read Rings of Saturn. Like Sebald, Sherman is concerned with war, brutality, nostalgia and loss, but her search for the meaning of time is also radiant and absolutely humane."—Olivia Laing, author of Crudo and The Lonely City
“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.”—David Peace, author of Tokyo Year Zero
"[A] spiritual memoir, which weaves between personal storytelling . . . and oral and mythical histories of the old neighborhoods of Tokyo . . . The author's own layered process mirrors the city's complexity, nonlinearity, and frozen beauty. The bells were not always easy to find, but Sherman was determined, and she successfully brings into focus their elusive stories, which point to an appealing past in a city that has moved rapidly into the future. Sharp attention to detail and a deliberate pace give this singular narrative history the sense of a shimmery, vanished past."—Kirkus Reviews
Reviews from Goodreads
The Bells of Time
The Five O’Clock Chime sounded, its notes drifting across Shiba Park. Every night, all over the city, Tokyo’s loudspeakers broadcast what’s called the bosai wireless at 5:00 p.m. sharp. It’s a xylophone...