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Travelogue G24

February 4, 2016

Perhaps, in so picturing a Japanese dedication to replica, I did little but perpetuate the same stereotypes as those spread by my cellarman and his talk of the meticulous work done at Japanese whisky distilleries. So great then came my relief to find an 18th century clock. Perched atop a lacquered stand with poem, the device presented itself as a rectangle, upright, with the clockface’s concentric black and red circles placed in its front and a bowl-shaped bell suspended above. A length of bronze or copper worked with small teeth ran along the rectangle’s upper back edge; there hung a bronze weight at either end.

If time had formerly been told using water clocks or sundials, from the 16th century onwards Japanese clocksmiths had come by the technical know-how to recreate European-style clocks in using a series of weights to propel the clockhands through the hours. As the day and night were each subject to a sixfold division and the day units and night units varied in length according to the season, the smiths had thought to include a mechanism to alter manually the the hours’ passing. Moving the two bronze weights towards the inner teeth sped up the clock; placing them nearer the outer in turn slowed it down. In this way, a servant, charged with the task by his or her liege, might regulate time’s own flow.

As can easily be imagined, such clocks required the servant’s constant care and, be it because of or in spite of this attention, did not prove wholly accurate. As such, the Japanese clock served more as a wealthy possession, a sign of surety and luxury, than as a timetelling device. Although, in truth, most would go on living their lives according to that time dictated by bells or drumbeats in the shrines and temples around, I briefly entertained the notion that for each feudal lord’s clock there had existed a separate regime of time, its hourly authority extending only within a certain radius. From one regime to another, clever residents could then slip in order to lengthen the day or shorten the night as they might have need.

Our circuit of the room led us past a scroll illustrating a mounded tomb, that of 1st century BC emperor Sujin. The legend suggested that the artist had prepared the document, comprising more than one hundred such illustrations, with an eye to surveying and eventually restoring the Kinai region’s mounded tombs. Turning my attention back to the illustration, I could make out a dyke raised not in order to turn back the sea but to enclose a square lake. Bounded in this way above ground, the artificial body of water in turn held an oblong island at its center, with a few islets scattered to either side. On the central island rose the titular mound and its growth of ornamental trees beneath which lay the emperor’s remains.

To set foot on the island tomb, the visitor would first have to approach via an elevated walkway and pass beneath two white torii at either end of a small enclosure at water’s edge. Only then, might the visitor board a small boat, perhaps carried there for just such a purpose, to be ferried across the artificial lake to the raised mound at its center. The level of artifice involved in such a construction could perhaps be thought to rival, in audacity if not in detail, that of the clock which we had left behind some moments earlier. Yet the emperor had no need of such a device to mark out his nights and days, equally uniform, which neither servant’s attention nor weight’s heft would alter.

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