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

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  359 ratings  ·  74 reviews
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
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published August 13th 2019 by Picador (first published May 16th 2019)
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Sue Pretty much. I got about halfway through and am abandoning it with no regrets. I'm finding it disjointed and stiff. For a potentially fascinating subj…morePretty much. I got about halfway through and am abandoning it with no regrets. I'm finding it disjointed and stiff. For a potentially fascinating subject, this is an oddly soulless read. (less)

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Jill S
Jul 16, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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


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
Barb in Maryland
Sep 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A basic description of the book (ex-pat woman uses a search for the time bells of old Tokyo to explore the modern city) fails to convey its charm.
The prose is clear and thoughtful; the history 'lessons' range over events dating from the earliest days of the city to the earthquake of 2011. The people the author meets (from the man who runs a coffee shop to temple monks and on to those who run small museums) are each interesting in their own way.
I was quietly enchanted by the book; the author give
Jun 27, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-english
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
From BBC Radio 4:
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.

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 hist
Dec 10, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This doesn’t take long at all before it descends into a swamp of self-parody, my Clicheometer was flashing red within the first ten pages or so as we ticked every single Japanese stereotype from haikus, Buddhism to weird sexual proclivities and paper cranes.

You know those writers who have that rare and wonderful gift of elevating the most banal of encounters into something quite special, well this isn’t one of those. This is mostly made up of bland, forgettable clichés wrapped up in pseudo spir
Jack Wrighton
May 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Nicky Neko
Ugh. God. I feel terrible, because I *really* wanted to like this book, and was so looking forward to reading it, but it just wasn't my cup of tea at all. (Or ceramic mug of Daibo coffee, in this case)

For a book about 'time' this book sure made time drag for me. It was too pretentious, tried to be too poetic. Not every little detail of life in Japan is this religious and life changing thing. Not every old man you meet is full of some kind of sublime wisdom which will change your life forever.

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.
Jess Fulton
Mar 05, 2020 rated it it was ok
I wanted to love it but didn't. The author gave no context when we moved locations, thoughts or time. I was lost most of the time as a reader, though when I did work out the context, the richness of Japanese culture and history shone through.
Drew Damron
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
After living in Japan for about three years and working in a library in Tokyo for two of them, I've read a number of gaijin memoirs. This is the first one that thoughtfully engaged with Tokyo and really represented how it feels to be here. It was poetic, it was research-heavy without being overbearing, it was nuanced, and, most importantly, there was no ego. If you are the kind of person who likes to walk around neighborhoods, then please read this.
Apr 04, 2020 rated it liked it
‘The Bells of Old Tokyo’ by Anna Sherman combines the author’s personal memoir of her time as an expat in Tokyo, and a study of the cultural history of Tokyo. Both aspects flow together as Sherman goes on a journey to learn about Tokyo’s ‘bells of time’, the bells through which time was told in the city in the past. The book finds a balance between the authors personal exploration of the city and detailed study of Tokyo’s history which makes that for most of the time, the book does not feel like ...more
Jul 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
I found this gem of a book on a trip to Melbourne last year, and planned to read it in anticipation of a planned trip to Japan later this year. The cover sparkled iridescently in the bookstore light and caught my eye, and the glimmering ‘TOKYO’ in big letters had me hooked.

Anna Sherman has meticulously researched historical records of specific Tokyo districts and woven a personal account into this meditation on time, place and collective memory. The city she reveals is a soulful one, full of se
Dan Konigsburg
A short (220 pages) meditation on time, marking time, Japanese culture and history - all wrapped up in a personal quest to see the old time-keeping bells that have survived into modern Tokyo’s cityscape. Enjoyable, poetic, and allusive in parts, I think this book will appeal more to folks who know Tokyo reasonably well and who have had at least some exposure to the language.
Mar 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Not a history book... not a travel book... something in between but with more oomph and a sense of discovery to it.

If you’ve been to Tokyo, it will resonate. If you haven’t - you may yet want to!
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.
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
Amanda Lange
May 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
“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 ...more
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to finish this book so I could go back and read it again. Stories of timekeeping and the perception of time in historic and present-day Tokyo are told through touching personal histories, interviews and physical exploration of the city.

A third of the pages are notes so this is a relatively short book. At times I was disoriented by the depth of detail, but it's worth trying to take it all in by going slowly.
Danni Jervis
Mar 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Amber Sherlock
Jul 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
'The Myriad Year Clock has six faces. It shows not just the twenty-four hour day of modern time, and the twelve-hour day of Edo time, but the phases of the moon, the twenty-four Japanese seasons and the days of the week. Another dial shows the ancient Chinese system, which combined the Zodiac animals and the elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.'

This is not a guidebook. This is not a history book. This is not story of a journey from A to B. What it is is a meditation on the nature of tim
Lewis Phillips
Aug 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
‘It’s the Age of Mass Forgetting. We live with such a flood of news that we forget what’s real,’ Tsuchiya said. ‘In a single day, we get ten years’ worth of news. To survive, we have to forget things: we forget things we hate. We forget things we love. We forget who we are.’

This book was everything it promised it would be and so much more. I have dreamt of travelling to Japan for most of my life, and reading this was like the briefest holiday – I felt completely transported. I just wish it could
Thomas King
Aug 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
9/10 Excellent, well-written; a book I would love to read again.

This memoir stories Sherman’s search for a series of bells that used to operate around Tokyo many years ago, some of which still ring on schedule. The history of these bells goes back to when Tokyo was a much smaller city. Sherman’s goal is to discover the fate of each bell and tie its history into where it lies today. The chapters are broken up into the discovery of each bell and the history surrounding it, with interludes of Sherm
Amit Bharti
Aug 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
R E V I E W 📚
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman
About the author- Anna Sherman was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied Greek and Latin at Wellesley College and Oxford before moving to Tokyo in 2001. The Bells of Old Tokyo is her first book. .
🎋The book is about Tokyo city and it's her travelogue memoir. I love the way how she has explored the city and the historical monuments that is rich in so many retelling stories about its small and big cities.
🎋 It's a more soulful and original boo
Nov 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A heartfelt, thoughtful, personal meditation on Tokyo’s relationship with time and the author’s relationship with Tokyo. While this book definitely requires at least a working knowledge of Japanese history and culture (and perhaps a map of Tokyo), it is a fascinating and compassionate glimpse into a city that is, famously, always rebuilding itself.

Many aspects of Sherman’s Tokyo were long gone by the time I moved there in 2010, yet I could perfectly understand the sense of time and loss and chan
I got this because I’m interested in Japan, I’ve never been, and I thought the idea of a book exploring Tokyo via some of its historic time-telling bells that explores the Japanese philosophy of time would be good.

This kinda misses for me. The format is inconsistent. I wasn’t totally sure why she kept going on about the Daibo coffee shop guy? While there were some interesting historical facts and things I didn’t know anything about, it was really hard to get any grasp on a series of events. It’s
Aug 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Loved how the concept of time can be different culturally. "When the Shoguns ruled Japan, a day had twelve hours. Each hour named after one of the Chinese Zodiac animals. The hour of the Tiger was right before dawn, when journeys began and lovers left each other. And in Edo the hours changed with the seadons: a winter daytime hour wasmuch shorter than a summer daytime hour. A night hour was long in winter, brief in summer. " When in 1872 Emperor Meiji mandated Western time, "No longer did clocks ...more
David Kamp
Apr 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
“Transportive” is a word I tend to overuse, but in these times, I find that we’re all seeking transportive books to lift us, even for a moment, out of our isolation. “The Bells of Old Tokyo” is Anna Sherman’s first book, and what a debut. It’s basically a travelogue memoir, but with a bit of mystery—she traces the semi-hidden remnants of Tokyo’s ancient predecessor city, Edo, that can be found in the modern, overbuilt city. I loved this book because I went to Tokyo (just once) and picked up a se ...more
Sandeep Narayanan
Aug 04, 2020 rated it it was ok
In this travel and personal narrative, Anna Sherman takes the reader along on her quest to find the bells of old Tokyo while taking us through the history of Edo (as Tokyo was once called)

The writing has an enchanting, mystic quality which I definitely liked but it unfortunately amounted to nothing substantial. There are very few writers who can take something banal and elevate it to something beautiful and worth reading but Sherman isn't one of them. The book feels like a series of cliches that
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