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The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City

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An elegant and absorbing tour of Tokyo and its residents 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 t An elegant and absorbing tour of Tokyo and its residents 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.


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An elegant and absorbing tour of Tokyo and its residents 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 t An elegant and absorbing tour of Tokyo and its residents 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.

30 review for The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City

  1. 4 out of 5

    Thebooktrail

    Visit the locations in the novel A very interesting concept for a book and a guide book to Tokyo. It’s not a novel , guide book or any one of these things, but a mix of many and that’s what so appealing. We travel and discover the land and its people with Anna, who as an outsider, has an interesting view of this fascinating country and city. I loved the idea of the bells and the concept of time. Something we take for granted now, but which started off very differently in other countries is somethi Visit the locations in the novel A very interesting concept for a book and a guide book to Tokyo. It’s not a novel , guide book or any one of these things, but a mix of many and that’s what so appealing. We travel and discover the land and its people with Anna, who as an outsider, has an interesting view of this fascinating country and city. I loved the idea of the bells and the concept of time. Something we take for granted now, but which started off very differently in other countries is something which always fascinates me. Time seems so set now, but it’s actually one of the most changeable and fleeting concepts. I am still amazed when they change the clocks for daylight saving time and the idea of time zones, but that’s another story. The language is lyrical and fascinating. The author manages to blend the ideas she has and places she comes across in the most lyrical of ways: “I would take not the elevated expressway routes, or the Yamanote Line railway that rings the heart of Tokyo, but trace areas in which the bells could be heard, the pattern that on a map looked like raindrops striking water. Winds could carry the ringing notes far out into Tokyo Bay; or the rain silence them as if they had never existed. A circle has an infinite number of beginnings. The direction I walked would change, just as the circles on the map could change. There were boundaries, but they were not fixed.” Sherman’s Tokyo is a compelling one at that. If I could afford to, I would fly there right now, this book in hand, and use it as the most unique guides and insights I could ever hope to find. It’s essentially a travelogue mapped out by the city’s bells through time. If this book were a clock, the hour hand would be the one showcasing the main ideas and areas of the city, with the second hand whirling around with interesting facts. Anna takes us with us on the journey and we visit the bells that still exist. I found this to be a very enticing way of introducing someone to a city or even guiding them around one you might know. It’s an extremely clever way of travelling around a city and getting to know it in so many interesting ways.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jill S

    I really wanted to love this book. I ordered it from the UK before it was even published in Canada because I couldn't wait to read it. But I think it might be my biggest let down of the year. This book is (supposedly) an examination of the cultural changes of Japan framed through the author's journey to visit all the sites of Japan's "Bells of Time", which for hundreds of years were rung all over the city to signal important moments of the day. This book isn't that, though. What it is is a hot me I really wanted to love this book. I ordered it from the UK before it was even published in Canada because I couldn't wait to read it. But I think it might be my biggest let down of the year. This book is (supposedly) an examination of the cultural changes of Japan framed through the author's journey to visit all the sites of Japan's "Bells of Time", which for hundreds of years were rung all over the city to signal important moments of the day. This book isn't that, though. What it is is a hot mess. This structure is completely abandoned without any apparent rhyme or reason, casually and apparently just at the whim of the author. There is no cohesion, no semblance of a narrative to tie it all together. It's a wild, bumpy ride throughout a staccato history of Japan. I think I could forgive this narrative whiplash were it not for the author's complete lack of regard for her reader. She rarely if ever gives context, explanations, or even definitions for very, very critical pieces of information to understand what she's talking about. For anyone interested in learning more about Japan but doesn't have even a basic understanding of its history, this book is not for you. I spent more time googling basic words, like shogun (which is essential to understanding anything in this text) and which would've taken the author one sentence of context to help me out. I was so excited to learn more about the history of Japan, and was so disappointed to find this book so disorganized and inaccessible.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Katja

    Ufff, reading this was like wading through tar. I almost dropped it but then I noticed there's almost hundred pages of notes and source material listing, so I thought to skim through a few dozen pages I had left. I wanted to like this, little images of Japanese history sounded interesting. But it was too fragmented, tried sometimes too hard to be poetic and I just didn't find the overall style enjoyable to read at all. Shame, because there are fascinating historical tidbits and experiences here a Ufff, reading this was like wading through tar. I almost dropped it but then I noticed there's almost hundred pages of notes and source material listing, so I thought to skim through a few dozen pages I had left. I wanted to like this, little images of Japanese history sounded interesting. But it was too fragmented, tried sometimes too hard to be poetic and I just didn't find the overall style enjoyable to read at all. Shame, because there are fascinating historical tidbits and experiences here and there and the author has interviewed some interesting people but it's just presented as a jumble. And I can see the coffee house chapters were important to the author but certainly don't help with the already jumpy structure. So, nope, I can't recommend this.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jack Wrighton

    This had an almost hypnotic effect on me. The subject is fascinating, and Sherman does an amazing job of tracking her physical (and cerebral) journey through the city. The language is sharp too, there’s not a wasted word in the entire book. Whether you know the city or not I’d highly recommend it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Randi Kennedy

    Strange and lovely, with poetry and grace, Sherman endeavors to capture time and a restless city. Great for lovers of philosophy, history, and Japan.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Taina

    Tämä oli todella Tokioinen - palasista koostuva sekava kokonaisuus, jonka lukeminen oli ihanaa. Tokiossa on aikoinaan ollut kelloja, joita on soitettu ajan merkiksi ympäri kaupunkia. Kirjailija lähtee jäljittämään kelloja ja tulee samalla kertoneeksi paljon aikakäsityksistä, Tokion historiasta ja kaupunginosien luonteista. Kerrontatapa on lyyrinen ja vangitseva, tietokirjalta tämä ei tunnu. Loppu töksähtää yhtäkkiä harmittavasti, mielelläni olisin lukenut lisääkin. Tunnelmalukijoille, historianä Tämä oli todella Tokioinen - palasista koostuva sekava kokonaisuus, jonka lukeminen oli ihanaa. Tokiossa on aikoinaan ollut kelloja, joita on soitettu ajan merkiksi ympäri kaupunkia. Kirjailija lähtee jäljittämään kelloja ja tulee samalla kertoneeksi paljon aikakäsityksistä, Tokion historiasta ja kaupunginosien luonteista. Kerrontatapa on lyyrinen ja vangitseva, tietokirjalta tämä ei tunnu. Loppu töksähtää yhtäkkiä harmittavasti, mielelläni olisin lukenut lisääkin. Tunnelmalukijoille, historianälkäisille, ajankulkijoille, Tokiotykkääjille.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    What a thoughtful and engaging book - will appeal mostly to people with either an interest in Japan/ Tokyo or those who have lived as expats anywhere. I loved hearing about Anna's experience as an expat and how she developed deep connections during her time in Japan. I haven't been to Japan but lived overseas for eight years so could relate quite a bit to some of her experiences. Beautiful writing.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Lange

    “The Bells of Old Tokyo” is mesmerizing. Anna Sherman writes in a melodic way that mirrors what she finds in Japan, a blend of philosophy, beauty, dark and light. This is a travelogue that reads more like a philosophical novel and the author moves between the role of archaeologist and anthropologist to that of the storyteller. The girth of the book boasts of the author’s intense desire to bring together lyrical notes and poems, academic research, and raw observation. I appreciated her sensitivit “The Bells of Old Tokyo” is mesmerizing. Anna Sherman writes in a melodic way that mirrors what she finds in Japan, a blend of philosophy, beauty, dark and light. This is a travelogue that reads more like a philosophical novel and the author moves between the role of archaeologist and anthropologist to that of the storyteller. The girth of the book boasts of the author’s intense desire to bring together lyrical notes and poems, academic research, and raw observation. I appreciated her sensitivity to a city with such a rich history, where stories and lives intertwine with the past. The Bells of Old Tokyo will whisk you away on a journey that shuttles through the past and present with the author as your guide through time.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Danni Jervis

    A wonderful exploration of Tokyo in an unusual manner. The historical context merged with the modern day culture really showcased how it is an ever changing city. The sense of realism that comes from Sherman being treated very much as a Gaijin while she explores is very honest. I'd highly recommend this for those who have visited Japan before or have read other travel memoirs in Japan.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Esmée

    A lovely book about Tokyo and its history. It really made me want to revisit the city and learn more about its past. Sherman does a great job getting you intrigued, but the book felt a little aimless to me as well. It's now a mix between a historical, modern day and memoirish narrative and I found it difficult to figure out where the emphasis was supposed to be. I think that if it had focused on one of those more heavily instead of at all of them, the book would have worked better for me. That s A lovely book about Tokyo and its history. It really made me want to revisit the city and learn more about its past. Sherman does a great job getting you intrigued, but the book felt a little aimless to me as well. It's now a mix between a historical, modern day and memoirish narrative and I found it difficult to figure out where the emphasis was supposed to be. I think that if it had focused on one of those more heavily instead of at all of them, the book would have worked better for me. That said, I still got a great vibe from it and I wished I had known more about Tokyo when I visited it!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Dan (aka Utterbiblio)

    A very abrupt ending held this back from 5 stars. It's a beautiful meditation on the concept of time and the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes. The travels of Anna through Tokyo make for interesting and eye-opening reading. It's less about the bells than the actual idea of time and how it effects us and our lives. Some beautiful writing that seems to transport the reader. Utterly stunning.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Relatively good book. I learned interesting historical facts about Tokyo and Japan. I liked the idea of traveling in time through bells and clocks. I was a bit disappointed in the structure. There’s no flow to the story, too bad because the fragments of stories she was saying were really interesting.

  13. 5 out of 5

    NidhaRajoli

    I really have been wanting to go to Tokyo forever! Hopefully this book can give me some insight about the wonderful city! Can’t wait for this! Rising up on the endless TBR.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bethwyn (Butterfly Elephant Books)

    DNF @ 25% Just not meshing with the writing style, and there are a few biases coming through that just made me uncomfortable. Not interested in reading more of this one.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Amber Sherlock

    A fascinating, melodic and winding tale of time and the differences between East and West. soft and mesmerising, Sherman weaves philosophy and anthropology into a fine weave of a book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    Review by Matthew: https://iexaminer.org/a-poetic-and-pe...

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rhonda Lomazow

    A lyrical look at Ol Tokyo the author takes us back in time to the bellringers of Tokyo and to the present a unique lyrical tour of this cuty I hope to visit someday.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lara (Bookishsolace)

    Thank you to picador for sending me a copy of the book! The bells of old Tokyo is a beautifully written guide to a city that that once was and partly still exists to this day. Anna Sherman travels through Tokyo in search of the temple bells of the ancient city of Edo and takes the reader on a journey to discover the land and its unique people. It is a travel guide of some sorts and could definitely be used as a more unique guide to exploring Tokyo, far away from overcrowded places. This novel is Thank you to picador for sending me a copy of the book! The bells of old Tokyo is a beautifully written guide to a city that that once was and partly still exists to this day. Anna Sherman travels through Tokyo in search of the temple bells of the ancient city of Edo and takes the reader on a journey to discover the land and its unique people. It is a travel guide of some sorts and could definitely be used as a more unique guide to exploring Tokyo, far away from overcrowded places. This novel is not only absolutely fascinating but also radiates so much calm which was my favourite aspect of it. I also found it very clever to introduce a city by showing the reader the bells that still exits, and it felt like I was exploring these parts of Tokyo with her. To give a little context: The temple bells were scattered throughout ancient Edo and the sounds defined zones of governance. Some of the bells are lost to history, however, there are still some existing one which is so very much in contrast to the modern life of Tokyo. I love the author’s eye for detail which sadly did not shine through when giving context. I found there to be little to no context and as I was interested in learning more about Japanese history, I was a little letdown. Especially certain words I had to look up the meaning of them. Nonetheless, I can still very much recommend this novel; it is a blend of philosophy and beauty, you just have to be prepared to invest some time.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Having just read "Japan Story: In Search of a Nation from 1850" by Dr Christopher Harding, this is an apt continuation for any Japonophile. Despite the romantic-melancholic flair of writing, I don't recommend this book for those who are seeking the typical images of Japan. It reveals the less flattering side of the nation, and unless you are ready for it, it won't be enjoyable. Essentially, this book explores the concept of time in the psyche of the Japanese. I like at how Sherman attempted to de Having just read "Japan Story: In Search of a Nation from 1850" by Dr Christopher Harding, this is an apt continuation for any Japonophile. Despite the romantic-melancholic flair of writing, I don't recommend this book for those who are seeking the typical images of Japan. It reveals the less flattering side of the nation, and unless you are ready for it, it won't be enjoyable. Essentially, this book explores the concept of time in the psyche of the Japanese. I like at how Sherman attempted to decipher the meaning of time across different era, through people from various walks of life. One thing for sure, in continuation of the 'rebellious' tone of Japan Story, it also seeks to defy the official definition and system of time as gazetted by the government. I find that the book needs (demands?) to be savored slowly. The language flows, just like time itself, but on a different pace. This is a pace that I find to be annoying sometimes, as I feel that it resorts the book into being another piece about Japan written by foreigners who claimed to understand the nation more than it's own people.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elif

    "It’s because we last only for a blink that our lives matter so much." English: https://elifthereader.com/books/the-b... Türkçe: https://kitaplikkedisi.com/kitaplar/t...

  21. 5 out of 5

    Thijs Joores

  22. 5 out of 5

    Paul "Axl" Hurman

  23. 4 out of 5

    Maxine Anders

    “The Bells of Old Tokyo” is mesmerizing. Anna Sherman writes in a melodic way that mirrors what she finds in Japan, a blend of philosophy, beauty, dark and light. This is a travelogue that reads more like a philosophical novel and the author moves between the role of archaeologist and anthropologist to that of the storyteller. The girth of the book boasts of the author’s intense desire to bring together lyrical notes and poems, academic research, and raw observation. I appreciated her sensitivit “The Bells of Old Tokyo” is mesmerizing. Anna Sherman writes in a melodic way that mirrors what she finds in Japan, a blend of philosophy, beauty, dark and light. This is a travelogue that reads more like a philosophical novel and the author moves between the role of archaeologist and anthropologist to that of the storyteller. The girth of the book boasts of the author’s intense desire to bring together lyrical notes and poems, academic research, and raw observation. I appreciated her sensitivity to a city with such a rich history, where stories and lives intertwine with the past. The Bells of Old Tokyo will whisk you away on a journey that shuttles through the past and present with the author as your guide through time.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Elena

  25. 5 out of 5

    Giantjoy

  26. 5 out of 5

    Margot

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lienkie

  28. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alan Shaw

  30. 5 out of 5

    Piotr Dawid

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