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Learning What it Means to Be Human

When Anna Sherman, author of The Bells of Old Tokyowalked into a curio shop below her apartment, she had no idea the course of her life would be changed by the woman inside.

By
Anna Sherman
the bells of old tokyo

I met many extraordinary people during the years I lived and traveled through Japan: artists, writers, actors, scientists, and a few celebrities. But the individual who most influenced The Bells of Old Tokyo was a slight woman I met only once; a woman about whom I know almost nothing. She owned a shop that sold antiquarian objects; it stood near my apartment, just beyond the University of Tokyo in Komaba. It was called Kashō.

The shop was a low building with a thatched roof and walls left rough, unpolished, the color of earth. The day I first saw the place, the window display was austere: a small red lacquer altar table, wildflowers, a pale celadon vase.

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I slid the door open and stepped inside. The entry was cool and smelled faintly of camellia wood incense. The room beyond was almost empty except for a basket woven of vines. A dark tansu chest studded with metal. A wooden tablet with a poem about time incised in flowing calligraphy. I might have been in a Zen temple.

“Hello?” I called, uncertain, and a lady stepped down from the shop’s back room. She was perhaps in her early sixties and wore her dark glossy hair pinned up at the nape of her neck. She had brilliant eyes. She handed me her name card: Takahashi Shōko.

The shop’s floor was an unpolished volcanic stone. In one glass display case, a few porcelain bowls and fragments shone. I leaned closer toward the glass.

“Yes, I like those,” Takahashi said, smiling and nodding at the thousand year old ceramics. “Even the broken pieces having something fine about them.”

The bowls were luminous, white, like shards from a radiant mirror that had shattered.

'At the foundation of Japanese thought, there is a sense of mortality, the belief that time is limited, and that neither creatures nor things last.'

We talked about art, ancient cosmology, about Chinese literature, about Tokyo. The month before, I had moved back to Japan after five years in Hong Kong. I had once spoken a staccato but passable Japanese, but when I returned, the language had not come with me. I kept stammering. The words still felt strange, alien—trying to speak with a mouthful of ice.

Takahashi sold me the elm wooden tablet for a very low price. Years later I realized that she had in effect given it to me. I hung it over my desk. At first, I could read only a few of the poem’s words: Autumn. Rain. Cloud. Boat. At the center is a single character larger than the others, the word for human being.

A few months later, Takahashi closed her shop, writing me that she wanted to simplify her life and concentrate on things she really cared about: studying philosophy and the tea ceremony. All distractions, all obligations to the outside world, she was paring away. I asked if we might meet again, and she agreed, but we never set a date.

A year after Kashō shut, the Great East Japan earthquake struck and vast tsunami waves rolled over the country’s northeast coast. Almost twenty thousand people died; it is difficult, still, to imagine the scale of destruction not just to individuals and their homes, but to entire cities. The waters so scored the landscape that a year later, when I flew over districts that the tsunami had wrecked, I looked over a coast without shadows. Almost nothing—no building, bridge, or tree—remained to block sunlight.

A few weeks after the earthquake I wrote Takahashi and said I hoped her family was safe. She answered with a handwritten letter, in flowing ‘grass-script’ calligraphy and sent two candles that she had bought twenty years before in Aizu, a town near the Fukushima power plants. “I would be so happy if you would burn them,” she wrote. Her letter then became a meditation on loss; on what it means to be human:

At the foundation of Japanese thought, there is a sense of mortality, the belief that time is limited, and that neither creatures nor things last.

You must put yourself in the corner of unlimited time, and live.

I described here how a meeting with a Japanese physicist inspired The Bells of Old Tokyo. But as I wrote the book, I wanted it to be something Takahashi herself might read one day; I hoped that by writing it, I would reassemble memories of the city the way Takashi had once gathered up shattered ancient bowls.

'You must put yourself in the corner of unlimited time, and live.'

Parents, lovers, children, friends, teachers: each transform a life. But sometimes our most important encounters are with strangers. Ichi-go, ichi-e, as tea ceremony masters say. One time, one meeting. No encounter can ever be repeated.

Takahashi and I weren’t the same nationality or even the same generation. It is so strange to think that someone I met for less than an hour, should so have affected not just my book but the course of my life. Ten years later, I can still see Takahashi Shōko—vibrant, charming. I can even hear her laugh. I want to give her The Bells of Old Tokyo and say, "I wrote this book for you."

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