The Bells of Old Tokyo
As read on BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’
Shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award
Longlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize
This mesmerising cultural history explores the neighbourhoods where [Tokyo’s] bells once rang, and captures the essence of a place where time’s innate elasticity seems to be woven into the place’s very fabric. As our own locked-down days squeeze and elongate, Tokyo time feels strangely familiar.’ – Daily Telegraph
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.
An enchanting read, drawing you into Sherman’s Tokyo world in a way that makes you wonder why you shouldn’t fly there right this minute, with her book as the only guide you’ll ever need. — Xu Xi 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 A beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. An astonishing gift. * Shelf Awareness * Sherman’s writing is elegant and accessible, and the story of Tokyo quickly becomes the story of time itself. — Best Books of Summer 2019 * Uproxx * 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 paints an intricate, rich portrait of this labyrinthine city . . . as much a history of Japan as it is a travelogue. * South China Morning Post * A reading treasure . . . A work of literary art . . . Magnificent both in its content and in the exquisite, lyrical writing of its author. * Cape Times * Only a handful could match Sherman for respectful curiosity, detailed knowledge and sensitivity to her surroundings. * Canberra Times * A fascinating portrait of a city and its people, epic and intimate at the same time * The Weekly Times * A staggering reassembling of an ancient city turned neon metropolis . . . An exceptional and exceptionally original piece of writing. * The Big Smoke * 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 * Delightful . . . Bells is unknowable, but brilliantly so. * Japan Times * It is very possible – refreshingly, exhilaratingly, possible – for a great book to exist that is all at once a memoir, a travelogue, a history book, and an examination of what defines a culture and its people: their customs, arts, architecture, habits, and priorities. That is what The Bells of Old Tokyo is. It is also a masterwork. * Books and Bao * 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 Beautifully written, surprising, original and humane . . . A truly stunning debut. — Joanna Kavenna A completely extraordinary book, unlike anything I have read before. At once modest in tone and vast in scale and ambition . . . Delicately wrought, precise, lucid and strange as a dream. — Olivia Laing A subtle, beautifully written meditation . . . Profoundly moving . . . The bells of old Tokyo are no longer heard, but this lyrical yet serious work deserves ringing endorsement. * Literary Review * Sherman’s is a special book. Every sentence, every thought she has, every question she asks, every detail she notices, offers something. The Bells of Old Tokyo is a gift . . . It is a masterpiece. * Spectator *
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