Discovering Tokyo's Beautiful Bookstores

If you're like me, you enjoy a good book.  Not just reading it, but every little detail from the smell of the paper, the texture of the ink on the pages, and the weight of the book in your hand. If it's a vintage book, it's also the story that the book itself has to tell from where it's been and who's read it before you.  For those who feel the same way, the journey to find a good book is worth a trip, and a memorable bookstore is priceless.  Today, I'd like to showcase those uniquely priceless bookstores in Japan's capital city, and I hope that you'll be able to enjoy them just as I have in my time in Tokyo.  I've categorized them to help you find the one that best suits you.  

So without further ado... 

The Hidden Gem

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I start my list with my personal favorite of the bunch.  This bookstore is quite the hidden gem, not because it is difficult to find, but because it is hidden in plain sight in a spot you would hardly expect a bookstore to be.

Most people travel to Omote Sando for the high-end fashion shops and the trendy cafes and restaurants, so imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful and historic book stores in Tokyo while walking the streets of Omote Sando.  The thing that caught my eye is hard to miss: a three story, colorful mosaic on the side of a building.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that this place was a bookstore and gallery, showcasing vintage books and new Japanese art while also selling a variety of (exclusively Japanese language) books.  At the time, I wondered to myself how a bookstore managed to stay in business amidst the Ted Baker's, Pradas, and Brooks Brothers.

The answer is that Sanyodo is a piece of history in the area.  The store originally opened in 1891 and was the first-of-its-kind in the area.  It grew in popularity, but the original building had to be moved to allow the construction of a new street, so the Sanyodo owners built a new concrete building in 1931--this time 3 stories tall with a basement.  This design included a Japanese style roof with the concrete design, offering a mix of east and west as was common with the time in Tokyo.   Amazingly, the building survived the Tokyo fire bombings, but it could not survive the changes being made to support the 1964 Olympics.  The Sanyodo building had to be sized down to the width you now see today.  On the bright side, that was when they added the mosaic to the side of the building, and although the original image has changed, the tradition is still alive (and highly instagrammable).

The inside of Sanyodo is surprisingly modern, as the store underwent a renewal in 2011 to add the gallery portion.  Don't worry though, the charm of the old building still shines through, but it does make for an interesting collision of modernity characteristic of Omote Sando and the history that makes up Sanyodo.

I wouldn't really say that Sanyodo is the best place to go shopping for books, but it is definitely the type of store to visit for browsing and appreciating the gallery and book collections.  If that strikes your fancy, head over to Sanyodo at 3 Chome-5-22 Kitaaoyama, Minato, Tokyo 107-0061.



The Big Name Beauty

Tsutaya, Daikanyama

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Tsutaya is probably the most common book store you'll encounter along your journeys in Japan, but the Daikanyama Tsutaya blows the rest out of the water in both the shop design and range of items available. 
 
Located at the Daikanyama T-Site complex, the idea of the Tsutaya store here was to create a 'library in the woods' feeling. While it's not in a forest, there is plenty of greenery around the area to help foster that kind of vibe.

 Just like other Tsutaya shops, Tsutaya Daikanyama offers a wide selection of books and magazines.  Don't worry if you can't read Japanese, either, since there are plenty of English language options here to enjoy as well.  
 
Ultimately, this bookstore option is the most like what you'd find back in the States at a Barnes and Noble where you can sit and browse books before purchasing them.  There's even a Starbucks on the ground floor so you can get your caffeine fix before settling in to browse your potential purchases.
Tsutaya Daikanyama is located at 17-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0033. 



The Mecca for Rustic Relics

Kitazawa Bookstore, Jimbocho

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Tokyo neighborhoods often become known for the types of stores they feature.  For example, Tsukiji is for fish mongers, Kappabashi is for cooking/restaurant items, etc.  There is one neighborhood in Tokyo that is all about books: Jimbocho.  The Jimbocho neighborhood features all sorts of bookshops ranging from bigger, general-type book stores to boutique-style specialty book shops.
 
One of the best in Jimbocho is Kitazawa Bookstore.  Like Sanyodo in Omote Sando, Kitazawa has been a mainstay book purveyor for the area, having been around since 1902.  This is the mecca for anyone who loves books and/or history, since it specializes in vintage secondhand books.  Many of the books are fairly recent, ranging from the 1960s to present.  However, Kitazawa also has a deep well of older books, including a rare book collection that boasts volumes from the 1600s.  Incredible, right?   While the store offers many English language options, I always recommend picking up at least one or two Japanese-language books (especially kids books) for souvenirs or language practice.  For the history buffs out there (like me), Kitazawa's academic section has lots of great classic English-language options, particularly about Asian History.  Some of my favorite finds are from western journalists who lived and worked in Japan between the Meiji Restoration until World War II.

The vibe inside is definitely more book-centric--while the Tsutaya features a Starbucks and Sanyodo has a gallery, Kitazawa simply features walls and walls of books.  To check out the vibe and/or the catalog of products for yourself, look up the Instagram account here and the website here

Kitazawa is located at 〒101-0051 Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Kanda, Jimbocho 2-5, Kitazawa Building 2nd Floor.



The Hipster Hub

Book and Sons, Meguro

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The next bookstore I'd like to introduce you is the smallest in this list and offers a very niche selection of secondhand books.  Located in Meguro, a hub in Tokyo for furniture and interior design, Book and Sons focuses on typography, or the art and technique of presenting written language.  While at first glance you may not think typography is something of interest to you, it has application for everyone from manga artists to graphic designers to interior decorators (one reason why it is popular in Meguro), to publishers and others.  The books here, while mainly in Japanese, offer some great ideas and techniques for amateurs and professionals alike.  For me, it was interesting to see all of the different ways that written language could be presented (refreshing, after spending so much of my life relegated to Times New Roman 12-pitch).  
 
For those of you not particularly interested in typography, Book and Sons still offers a unique bookstore experience, with its combination of modern and retro styling.  My favorite part of the store (and the part that makes it most photogenic) is the interplay between the light fixtures and the book shelves.  
 
Book and Sons is located at〒152-0004 Tokyo, Meguro, Takaban, 2−13−3, and has a website here



The Browse and Booze Book Haven

B&B, Shimokitazawa

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The last store on the list offers a bit more...let's just say "relaxed" atmosphere in which to enjoy your books.  Shimokitazawa is one of my favorite neighborhoods famous for its Bohemian sensibilities, and it doesn't get much more Bohemian than a book store that offers a range of draft beers anytime during business hours. Yup, at Book and Beer Shimokitazawa, you can enjoy a brew while perusing the wares or just hanging out at a table enjoying a book you may or may not have purchased.  (Don't worry, if you're not a beer fan, soft drinks are also available.) 
 
In addition to being able to enjoy a beer with your books, another great thing about B&B is that they regularly hold events with authors and editors of the books they stock. The staff is friendly and hospitable--you never have to worry about becoming the unwanted visitor.  In fact, even when you do leave, the staff invites you to take your drinks out of the premises, since there are no open bottle laws in Japan like there are in some other countries (like I said, Bohemian, right?).
 
All of this makes for a unique bookstore experience, and one that shouldn't be missed if you visit my favorite neighborhood in Tokyo of Shimokitazawa. 

You can find B&B at 2F, 2-12-4 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, and their website is here.
 

So there you have it...

...a short list of options to help you discover the wonders of Tokyo's beautiful bookstores.  Each has something special to offer those travelers who share in my affinity for books (or those just looking to dive into Tokyo's subculture or history), so I say zehi, check these places out and maybe take home a second-hand treasure to add to your book shelf at home!


Mike B