When I want to show someone around Tokyo, we often begin in Asakusa. It’s a neighborhood both touristy and ordinary, famous for tempura, nori, and Sensō-ji temple, the most visited spiritual site in Japan. The symbol of Sensō-ji is the mighty Thunder Gate, Kaminarimon, with its red lantern suspended between two burly supporting columns, each housing a golden statue of a Shinto god (yes, at a Buddhist temple; it’s complicated).
Kaminarimon is both old and not old. It was built in 941, a few blocks south of where it currently stands. It has stood in its current location in 1635. Sort of. It burned down in 1639. Actually, it burned down a lot – in 1757 and again in the 1860s. After that, it existed only in memory and occasional temporary forms for nearly a century, until it was rebuilt in 1960 using concrete, steel, and a large donation from Panasonic. The lantern is replaced every ten years, most recently in 2013.
Living in Tokyo requires a high tolerance for this type of ambiguity. It’s a mashup of the very old and very new, the cacophony of the pachinko parlor and the silence of the residential street, blinding neon and darkness. These dichotomies are always present and often overlapping.
In The Bells of Old Tokyo, Anna Sherman takes a personal and historical journey through the world’s largest city. She writes like a spirit floating across Tokyo in four dimensions. “In the heavy air, smoke from grilling eels. A shrine to the Seven Gods of Good Luck, pomegranates and pears ripening on trees by its stone gate.” When she delves into the city’s past, her perspective is no less vivid. “[T]he roofs of Edo Castle would have been visible even from distant Mejiro: the citadel was clad in gleaming white tiles made of lead…[t]he lesser towers had copper tiling, which had turned green, and dolphin finials made of gold.”
Sherman talks to a survivor of the firebombing of 1945, a physicist who makes terrifyingly accurate atomic clocks, and, again and again, the proprietor of her favorite coffeehouse, Daibo Coffee, in its last days. (She mourns the cafe’s passing with obvious love and little sentimentality.)
Nominally, this is a story about the author’s search for the eight timekeeping bells that used to ring out in the days before personal timepieces, but Tokyo has a way of taking such a single-minded project and shattering it into twinkling pieces. Sherman is easily distracted, much to the reader’s benefit. This is the kind of book where the author will suddenly veer into a full page of musings on various Japanese words for human genitalia, with lexicographic and clinical detail.
Like its subject, nothing about The Bells of Old Tokyo is tidy. There are no platitudes about Japanese culture, no attempt to solve Tokyo like a jigsaw puzzle. It is a bit of travel memoir here, history there, and mostly the diary of a person attempting to understand the world through one of its most fascinating cities. In other words, it is profoundly content with ambiguity.