A poetic historical exploration of Japan’s immense capital city by an American-born author who moved to Japan to learn the language and was inspired by composer Yoshimura Hiroshi’s book Edo’s Bells of Time.
Living and working in Tokyo for some years as an editor for Hong Kong University Press inspired Sherman, who was born in Arkansas, to create this spiritual memoir, which weaves between personal storytelling of her time there and oral and mythical histories of the old neighborhoods of Tokyo. In the era of the shogunate, before the 16th-century missionaries brought the first clocks, Tokyo was Edo, and time was told by the tolling of bells across the city. The author presents Tokyo as a “timepiece,” with each different neighborhood representing the site of an ancient temple hosting its own singular sacred bell, delineated in Hiroshi’s work. Moving structurally from neighborhood to neighborhood, Sherman whimsically maps the city for readers, chronicling her encounters with the locals, including the owner of a small coffee shop with whom the author built a significant friendship. Sherman also explores the myths of the shogunate and illuminates the personal histories of the monks, bell-ringers, and other interesting characters she met along the way. Throughout her lyrical journey, she follows in the footsteps of Hiroshi, eschewing railroad travel in favor of tracing on foot “areas which bells could be heard, the pattern on a map looked like raindrops striking water.” 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.