Notes from an author: Anna Sherman on Tokyo

Amid the shifting skyline and endless innovation, the sounds of old Tokyo can be heard if you listen closely enough.

By Anna Sherman
Published 8 Nov 2019, 14:00 GMT, Updated 16 Mar 2021, 10:30 GMT
Anna Sherman
Anna Sherman.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

In Tokyo, buildings are knocked down and replaced almost overnight; landmarks and cultural sites appear and disappear. The novelist Natsume Sōseki once wrote: ‘In Tokyo everything looked as if it were being destroyed, and at the same time everything looked as if it were under construction.’ Sōseki could have written those words at any point in the last 400 years, and they’d always have been true.

When I first moved to Japan, I worked as a researcher for an architect. For two years I walked the city every day, especially its older districts, taking notes on Tokyo’s secret spaces, its hidden histories. Though wars, earthquakes and fires have erased much of Tokyo’s past, much remains: high tsuji-bei mud-and-tile walls; a sumo ring almost as old as the city; an empress’s tea-hut and fishing pond with its wild beehives and kingfishers; iron dragons on the Bridge of Japan. 

The very old and very new often appear alongside each other in this city: zodiac animals painted on Ueno’s 17th-century pagoda near the park’s exquisite new Hall of Treasures (‘a box within a box within a box’); Viñoly’s cavernous glass Tokyo International Forum sailing alongside the early 20th-century brick railway arches of Yūrakuchō. I love Tokyo’s contrasts, the skyscraper beside a 300-year-old pine; knowing that the tree may well outlast the steel tower.

When walking Tokyo, I feel lost in an infinite labyrinth, a shifting maze. To cross the city, and to write about it, I needed to fold up those great spaces, to reduce them to imaginable landscapes. I began by exploring the so-called sound ranges that ringed the old city’s Bells of Time. From the mid-17th century until the end of the shogunate in 1868, these eight bells rang out the hours. The sound ranges marked the boundaries inside which the bells could be heard. The distance the sounds could travel varied with weather and season, so those boundaries rippled and faded. They weren’t fixed.

Each Bell of Time had its own voice, just as each district had its own identity. Two have names — Shinjuku’s is the ‘Get Back Home Bell’ and the easternmost, at Yokokawa-honjo, was ‘Bell of the Drunkard’s Paradise.’ One — Mejiro — disappeared in the early 20th century; another, now at the base of Tokyo Tower, was replaced after a fire. The Zodiac bell vanished twice but somehow always came back to its temple, watching over a graveyard for people and pets. The Ueno bell once had two companions that were struck when someone from the shogunal family died. The first sounded a note of rest; the second of sadness; and the Bell of Time itself, a note of transcendence. The oldest bell, and the one with the sweetest voice, still rings near the goddess of mercy’s temple in Asakusa. ‘Only a magnificent old bell can produce such a sound,’ the novelist Kawabata once wrote. ‘A sound that seemed to roar forth with all the latent power of a distant world.’

After the last shogun left the city, and Edo became Tokyo, those bells no longer kept the hours: a noontime cannon replaced them. Sōseki hated the change: he wrote that the exploding boom made him feel ill. Elsewhere he describes the Western pendulum clocks as bringing on dreams ‘orchestrated by demons.’ Today only the Ueno bell still rings the hours, as it did in the shoguns’ era: at 6am, midday and 6pm — unless the bell-ringer’s wife forgets the noon bell.

Like the rest of the world these days, the Japanese rely on iPhone apps and alarm clocks in the mornings; they use timers and listen out for the ‘bōsai wireless’ chimesthat test the emergency broadcasting system every day at 5pm. But in Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel Convenience Store Woman, the protagonist can calculate the exact hour — not by checking any clock, but from customer orders, chore timetables and delivery schedules.

Visible outside the windows, polished free of fingerprints, are the figures of people rushing by. It’s the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I’m one of those cogs, going round and round. 

Like Murata’s convenience store worker, no one needs an elaborate gadget to tell the time: we’re each our own clock.

The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman is published by Picador. RRP: £14.99.

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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