The Bells of Old Tokyo

Anna Sherman | 6 mins

The Bells of Time

The Five O’Clock Chime sounded, its notes drifting across Shiba Park. Every night, all over the city, Tokyo’s loudspeakers broadcast what’s called the bōsai wireless at 5:00 p.m. sharp. It’s a xylophone lullaby that tests the city’s emergency broadcast system. Across Japan, the tunes vary, but Tokyo stations usually play the song ‘Yūyake Koyake’. The words are: With sunset, the day darkens./ On the mountain, the Bell of Time sounds./ Hand in hand, shall we go home, along with the crows?/ Once the children are back, a great full moon shines./ In the dreams of the birds, a sky of glittering stars.

The evening loudspeakers weren’t playing ‘Yūyake Koyake’, but something else. I didn’t recognize the song, and was wondering what it was, when twining through the recorded broadcast I heard another sound, the bell from Zōjō-ji, the ancient temple near Tokyo Tower.

The single toll rang out almost like a chord: one high note deepening out into a low one. I followed the sound. Passing through the temple’s Triple Gate, I could see the huge bell in an open stone tower and the bell-ringer in his dark indigo robes. He was very young. A thick rope of purple, red and white threads dangled from the horizontal shumoku, the wooden bar used to ring the bell. The boy hung on to the cord, rocking the shumoku back a little, and then again, before he slammed it like a battering ram into the green bronze bell. Dragging on the rope, the boy threw his entire weight backward, falling and falling until he was almost sitting on the tower’s flagstones; then the recoil drew him up, up again. The entire motion looked like a recording run backwards; a fall magically reversing itself.

Japan is a country of bells. When I was little, someone gave me a Japanese wind chime, a flimsy thing shaped like an airy pagoda: the five eaves of the three-tiered roofs each jangled with little bells, and five pendant hollow cylinders that rang when they struck each other. Fishing twine held the toy together. Maybe because the threads were clear, the wind chime always looked as if it were about to fly away from itself.

No one ever hung it up, and eventually the lines tangled until their knots were snarled past straightening: the music would not come at all.

But the chime was my first East: the shine of metal, shimmering notes, night winds.

After the last toll, the ringer unhooked the multicolored cord and threw it over his shoulder and set off up a long flight of stairs until he disappeared into Zōjō-ji’s Main Hall.

A small metal plaque on the tower read: ‘Shiba Kiridōshi. One of Edo’s Bells of Time.’

Before Tokyo was Tokyo, it was called Edo. From the early seventeenth century, Edo was the de facto political center of Japan, though Kyoto remained the country’s capital until 1868, as it had been since the year 794. At first, only three bells sounded the hours: one in Nihonbashi, inside the prison at the city’s heart; another near the northeastern temple to the goddess of mercy; and the third in Ueno, near the city’s northern Demon Gate. As Edo grew – by 1720, more than a million people lived in the city – the Tokugawa shoguns licensed more time-telling bells: in Shiba, by Tokyo Bay. East of the Sumida River, in Honjo. In the western district of Yotsuya, at the Heavenly Dragon temple. Southwest of the center, in the hills of Akasaka, where the Tokyo Broadcasting Service headquarters stands now. To the west, in Ichigaya, near the Defense Ministry. And far to the northwest, in Mejiro, near the district where the city’s worst fire broke out in 1657.

The bells tolled the hours, so the shogun’s city would know when to wake, when to sleep, when to work, when to eat.

Beside the metal plaque was a map showing the sound range of each bell, a series of circles overlapping each other like raindrops in a still pool. Raindrops frozen at the moment they strike water.

Just before he died in 2003, the composer Yoshimura Hiroshi wrote a book called Edo’s Bells of Time.

Yoshimura once worked as a sound designer. He could build an entire universe from a scrap of music, a few verses, the name of a hill or a well or a river. In his last book, Yoshimura described Tokyo as the blind must know it: the footsteps of workers going home through Ueno Park; the clattering of coins thrown into offertory boxes at temples and shrines; hecklers yelling at a clumsy bell-ringer for the joya no kane, the bells rung on the first midnight of the New Year. 108 times; 108 for the number of corrupting worldly desires.

The shogun’s city has almost completely disappeared, Yoshimura wrote. Not just the buildings and gardens, but the city’s soundscape, too. In Bells of Time, Yoshimura drifted through the vast city, listening for noises unchanged in three hundred years. Some were too subtle for twenty-first-century Tokyo – the sound of lotuses, opening at dawn. Crowds would gather every summer, listening out for the crack of buds rippling across Shinobazu Pond. Can we imagine how sensitive people were then? But some sounds of Edo do survive: vendors shouting in the markets; the glass wind chimes carried through the city on carts every July; and the tolling of the time-telling bells.

Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing. And that when it tolled, the bell drank up all life around it.

The shogun is gone, but you can hear what he heard, Yoshimura wrote. The note opens outward. The sound holds within itself the movement through time.

I decided to follow Yoshimura, and look for what was left of his lost city. I would take not the elevated expressway routes, or the Yamanote Line railway that rings the heart of Tokyo, but trace areas in which the bells could be heard, the pattern that on a map looked like raindrops striking water. Winds could carry the ringing notes far out into Tokyo Bay; or the rain silence them as if they had never existed.

A circle has an infinite number of beginnings. The direction I walked would change, just as the circles on the map could change.

There were boundaries, but they were not fixed.




Daibo Katsuji was famous, though for years I didn’t know how famous, for his coffee and especially for the way he poured it. Over fine coffee grounds he would let fall one drop, two drops, then three, until the water trickled down in a glittering chain.

Daibo’s black hair was cropped like a monk’s. Every day he wore a shining white shirt, black trousers and a black apron: a uniform that never varied and that resembled an ascetic’s robes. He had fine dark eyes and a dark blue stain on his lower lip, perhaps a birthmark. He was a slight man, but not when he stood behind his counter.

No one found Daibo’s cafe by accident. You had to know it was there, before you climbed the narrow stairs. The room was small – just twenty seats – the kind of narrow rectangle the Japanese call an eel’s nest.

Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee. It was always the same.

It was a small cafe on the first floor, above a ground-floor ramen counter. Then the ramen counter turned into a coin locker for left luggage. Before the ramen counter existed, there had been a boutique. The floor above the cafe was a sword-dealer’s. On the top floor, I think, someone sold netsuke: tiny people, animals, imaginary creatures carved out of ivory or bone or wood. Then the other owners retired or moved and the entire building emptied out, except for Daibo. He never left, except for three days every August when he went north to the Kitakami mountains in Iwate, where he was born.

From one end of the room to the other flowed a rough counter made of pine that Daibo had retrieved from a lumber yard where, he said, it had been ‘floating’.

Every morning, Daibo roasted coffee beans. He would open the windows and the smoke would drift down Aoyama dōri and even to Omotesandō Crossing. Summer and winter, spring and fall.

The beans rattled with a sound like a child’s rainmaker toy, like lottery balls. Drifting over that sound was the jazz Daibo loved. The music would disappear – drowned out by a siren, traffic, rain, shrilling cicadas – and then reappear as if it had never been gone.

Daibo cranked his one-kilogram roaster barrel with one hand and held a book in the other, putting it down to test the beans inside the barrel with a blackened bamboo scoop. Then he picked up his paperback, and read on.