IN THE heyday of Edo, in the millennium preceding the ancient Japanese metropolis’s rebirth as modern-day Tokyo, an isolated, self-reliant society without clocks required an inventive means by which to mark the passing of time. Across the city a network of beautifully crafted bells filled that role, rung by hand to chime the most significant hours of every day.
Now long-since retired, those bells have in some cases disappeared entirely and in others largely been forgotten.
On a personal mission to locate the remaining examples, expatriate writer Sherman negotiates the sidestreets and alleyways of Tokyo’s suburbs. Her wanderings deviate far beyond the standard tourist route, delving into both physical and cultural aspects of Japanese life to reveal a side of Tokyo few visitors have either the privilege or a reason to encounter.
Sherman’s travels lead to a tiny coffee house where beans are roasted to order and the beverage is served in bowls, to the site of a former prison and execution ground, to an avenue of euphemistically named ‘love hotels’ where virtually any fantasy can be explored, and to museums and archives carefully maintained by passionate private collectors. Her journey passes through shrines and temples, bars and parks.
It also crosses periods of history, examining the Japanese calendar, the animal zodiac and a succession of shogunates.
In a region subjected over centuries to earthquakes, tidal waves, fire-storms and floods, Tokyo has been all but obliterated repeatedly – perhaps never more so than during World War II, when entire neighbourhoods of timber houses were razed in infernos ignited by aerial bombing.
Somehow, miraculously, several of the original bronze artefacts have survived.
Alongside these bells, the individuals who care for them are revealed to be national treasures themselves – the keepers of a tradition predating the arrival in the 1600s of European missionaries with their ingenious mechanical timepieces.