From 1632 until 1854, Japan’s rulers restricted contact with foreign countries, a near isolation that fostered a unique culture that endures to this day. Sherman describes searching for the great bells by which the inhabitants of Edo, later called Tokyo, kept the hours in the shoguns’ city.
Listening is what Sherman is best at. Her passage around Tokyo is a form of listening, as she traces the sound-ranges of the bells ... Sherman’s is a special book. Every sentence, every thought she has, every question she asks, every detail she notices, offers something. The Bells of Old Tokyo is a gift ... points us to the diversities and complexities of Tokyo, and of Japan’s histories and systems of belief. It is a masterpiece. Sherman’s Tokyo, populated by Japanese voices — authors, artists, museum stewards, people in bars, cafes, or on the street, the religious and unreligious — is mesmerising and brimming with life.
A lot of research backs the book, with around a third of the page count going to a bibliography and notes, often enjoyable reading in their own right. There’s clearly an academic mind at work here, but for all its sourcing and contextualising, the book rarely feels bogged down by it, and it’s a warm and engaging read. It makes a refreshing counterpart to quite a few books which fall into the 'gaijin gets into mishaps' model – this author isn’t here to tell us about culture shock clichés like coin locker hotel pods, for example ... Anyone with an interest in Japan will benefit from [Sherman's] inquisitive mind at work in this book.
... a lovely way to ring in the new with contemplation of the old ... A wistful sense of nostalgia and loss permeates this book ... References to the work of various writers, artists, critics and historians—including Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata —enrich her narrative ... Tokyo’s past, although often physically erased by fires or constant demolition and construction in a nation that prizes change and modernization—is movingly excavated and evoked in this unusual book ... Ms. Sherman has a nose for interesting stories, and each district yields its own fascinating slice of Japanese history ... The decision to keep the focus on her lyrical prose is understandable. But although clearly not intended as a guidebook, the book begs for photographs and, at the minimum, endpaper maps.