Bookstores are like a cross between a treasure trove and a jack-in-the-box.
You could just happen upon a bookstore and casually enter—and end up encountering a book that changes your life. And sometimes, that book is sitting right next to the one you were looking for.
Yes, there are times when I buy books from online booksellers, but bookstores, for me, are on a completely different plane of existence.
Last year, I visited my hometown in California for the first time in a long while, and found that nearly all of the bookstores I’d been going to in my youth were gone. The only one that remained belonged to a major bookstore chain, and upon entering I found that over 1/4 of the bookshelves were completely empty.
In both Japan and the U.S., the trend away from bookstores and printed books is a serious matter, with the number of physical bookstores declining drastically with each passing year.
The thing is, physical bookstores have certain functions that can never be replaced by an online store.
Bookstores each have a personality all their own, and the tastes of the people who work there are reflected in that.
So I try to visit my local bookstores as often as I can. That’s a surefire way to serendipitously encounter the kind of wonderful books you would have never expected.
2.Aoyama Book Center Honten (Main Store)
Aoyama Book Center (ABC) in located on the basement floor in the area behind the United Nations University, which sits across from Aoyama Gakuin University. It is one of the bookstores I visit most often. There is a featured book section on the right-hand side just past the entrance where you’ll find a one-of-a-kind selection that the competition would never go for.
On the left-hand side just inside the entrance is the foreign magazine section, sporting the kind of beautiful cover photography that inspires creativity.
And it is the Aoyama neighborhood, of course, so there is a wide selection of cooking and traveling books, as well as photography books and art books.
In the past they had an expansive section of creative design books, but I suppose they had to scale down a bit—creatives and designers these days seem to get most of their material online.
The area that was scaled down has been turned into a kind of gallery space where they also hold seminars. The store has an impressive schedule of workshops and lectures by authors and creatives; the offerings make ABC’s Aoyama main store a creative hub, and are some its most charming features.
Aoyama Book Center Honten (Main Store)
3.TSUTAYA TOKYO ROPPONGI
In my line of work—planning new content and other projects and doing translations—when I find that I’ve hit a wall, I’ll hop on my bicycle and hightail it over to Tsutaya in Roppongi.
Under cover of darkness I’ll bike through Yoyogi Park, up Omotesando, down the hill by Nezu Museum, past the Kasumi-cho crossing (kasumi means mist; presumably in the past the area used to get very misty), and all the way to Roppongi Hills. It’s a trip through a side of Tokyo you never see during the daylight hours.
I’ll stare at the books and magazines on the first floor for a while, then look at the CDs and DVDs on the second floor for some inspiration. Then I’ll head back downstairs and order a decaf at Starbucks, which I’ll enjoy at one of the tables outside. It’s a routine that seems to energize me.
It is also strangely refreshing to overhear the kind of mindless chatter thrown about by foreign fashion models just coming from the local clubs, or hostesses heading home after work.
This Tsutaya is open until 28:00 (4:00 am), so in early summer, when I’ve been grinding it out until just around closing time, the dawn starts to break. Then I notice the sparrows pecking away at breadcrumbs at my feet, and it’s actually very invigorating.
As for the return trip, I bike past the wall murals along Roppongi Tunnel and make my way to Aoyama-dori. From there I go down Omotesando and continue to Yoyogi Park.
There is something very dream-like and rejuvenating about biking through Tokyo so early in the morning.
TSUTAYA TOKYO ROPPONGI
Daikanyama T-SITE is not just a bookstore—it’s a multi-use complex.
Lately I see more and more bookstores that let customers browse the books and magazines without having to buy anything. But no one does it better or more thoroughly than Tsutaya Daikanyama. When I’m alone, I like to grab a coffee at the in-store Starbucks and flip through several magazines.
When I’m there for a meeting, I’ll head upstairs to Anjin on the second floor.
It’s a very fun facility, with small-scale seminars and live music events held on a frequent basis.
Ivy Place, the cafe/restaurant, offers a completely different atmosphere between lunch and dinnertime, and it’s a very useful location fit for a variety of occasions.
5.Maruzen and Junkudo Bookstore Shibuya
Since the trend away from printed books has heralded tough times for the publishing industry, even the major bookstore chains have run into financial difficulties. Junkudo Bookstore, whose main store is in Ikebukuro, and the time-honored Nihonbashi bookstore Maruzen merged into a single entity.
On the seventh floor of Tokyu Department Store Main Store in Shibuya, you’ll find a range of stationery from Maruzen, and a selection of books from Junkudo adjacent to one another.
In terms of sheer amount of books, it doesn’t hold a candle to Junkudo’s main store in Ikebukuro, but there is quite a number of books and magazines. For planning projects and doing translations, I can find most references I need here.
There are even seats scattered throughout, perfect for flipping through a book before a purchase.
And right in front of the cashier area is a section of special selections; personally I’m fond of the unique science-related picks.
Incidentally, the name Junkudo (where the suffix “do" means “hall" or “shrine") comes from the founder’s father, whose name was apparently Kudo Jun—which was reversed into Jun Kudo.
Maruzen and Junkudo Bookstore Shibuya
6.Book 1st Shinjuku Store
Book 1st Shinjuku Store is a large, 3,300-square-meter bookstore that takes up the first and second basement floors beneath Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, which is home to three educational institutions: Tokyo Mode Gakuen (a fashion vocational school), HAL Tokyo (a technology and design school), and Shuto Iko (a medical school).
A walk around the entirety of the two floors is enough to qualify as exercise.
But actually take some time and survey every inch of what’s on offer, and you’ll feel as if you hold in your hands all of human knowledge from around the world.
My favorite section of the store is the shinsho paperback corner, which is presented both by genre and by publisher, which I appreciate.
Book 1st Shinjuku Store
7.Books Kinokuniya Shinjuku Main Store
For me, Shinjuku Station East Exit means Isetan Men’s, Kinokuniya bookstore, and Kinokuniya Hall. Since around the time I was studying abroad at Sophia University I had dabbled in theater, so I went a number of times to Kinokuniya Hall.
The stage at Kinokuniya Hall has featured productions by such Japanese theater companies as Bungakuza, Haiyuza Theater Company, the Mingei Theater Company, Theatrical Group EN, Komatsuza, and Tokyo Vaudeville Show. So it was a pretty exciting place for me.
Books Kinokuniya Shinjuku Main Store
8.Books Kinokuniya Tokyo
On the 6th floor of Shinjuku Takashimaya (inside Takashimaya Times Square, which for some reason is technically in Shibuya Ward) is Books Kinokuniya Tokyo, which specializes in foreign-language books. And on the 7th floor is Kinokuniya Southern Theater TAKASHIMAYA, one of my favorite playhouses in the city. (Floors 1-5, which used to also be part of Kinokuniya, are currently occupied by furniture maker Nitori.)
As far as I know, the 6th floor carries the largest selection of foreign-language books in Tokyo. For expats who plan to be here a while, it’s a must-know bookstore.
As for Kinokuniya Southern Theater TAKASHIMAYA, it is a hallowed place for thespians along with nearby Kinokuniya Hall.
What’s more, Kinokuniya has also offered the Kinokuniya Drama Awards since 1966. The great thing about this award is that eligibility is not limited to its own two theaters—any production held in a theater in Tokyo is eligible to be considered.
Books Kinokuniya Tokyo
Here’s a conversation I had with Mickey K. at Daikanyama T-SITE:
“You don’t see young people at bookstores anymore. And on the trains, you occasionally see someone reading a book, but I haven’t seen anybody reading a magazine,” Mickey K. mutters.
“Well, when it comes to magazines, you can get access to all the digital magazines you want for a monthly fee of less than 1,000 yen,” I answer.
“But the great thing about magazines is turning the page, one after another. It’s like a world you’ve never known being revealed to you page by page,” he replies.
“For people these days, full-sized magazines are just too bulky. Apparently, when it comes to printed materials, those reduced-size editions are pretty popular.” I pick up a nearby women’s fashion magazine and hand it to him.
“This picture on the cover—it’s not in focus,” he says.
“Yes...everything is digital nowadays. Nevertheless, I imagine that picture has been touched up,” I say.
Now he is getting a little angry. “You can blur something that’s in focus, but you can’t unblur something that’s not in focus.”
Mickey K. continues. “These young photographers—they’ve gotten used to digital photography, which can be fixed and touched up after the fact. This is what happens when you don’t know that on-edge feeling that was inherent to shooting film.”
“Was film really that difficult?” I indulge him.
A slightly smug look comes over his face. “Color film can be divided into two types. Photographic negatives, which to-shi-ros (to-shi-ro is an argot word Mickey K. uses for shirouto, which means novice or amateur) used to make positive prints on photographic paper, and positive transparencies (also called reversal film, intended for use with slide projectors), which were intended for professional use. With negatives, as long as it’s been reasonably exposed, you’ll get something. But with positive transparencies, make the slightest mistake and you end up with nothing. You had to change the type of film depending on whether it was sunlight, light bulbs, fluorescent light...and you had to use special filters.”
I nod emphatically. He continues.
“And you would be so nervous until you got the images developed. Here in the city you could get images developed at a pro-lab (a photofinishing lab for professionals) in about an hour or two, so worst case scenario you could do a reshoot, but for shoots overseas, it was nail-biting.”
I nod to show I understand. He continues.
“You could potentially spend millions of yen on a shoot and end up with not even one usable shot. And film is a physical object with physical properties. So if the temperature is too warm, for example, it gets discolored. And your biggest enemy was the x-ray machines at airport baggage check.”
I look at Mickey K. inquisitively.
“You’d put your film inside lead bags in order to protect them from the x-rays, but then that would draw suspicion, and they’d shower it with extra-strong x-rays. Basically all you could do was try to explain to the attendants as carefully as possible so that they didn’t x-ray your bag. But if you’re carrying around hundreds of rolls of film, that too draws suspicion, right? And if you’re visiting a developed nation, they might understand. But a tropical island? Good luck with that.”
He keeps going.
“And yes, digital cameras are convenient. But you’re not imbuing your photographs with soul. Are you thinking to yourself, I’ll just take dozens of pictures, and I’ll retouch them later? Or are you thinking, if I don’t get this right, there are no second chances? It’s a fundamentally different approach to photography.
That made sense. I felt something click inside.
“You’re making me think of young people these days who walk along the train station platform with their attention on their phones. It seems to me that in their mind, even if they were to fall off the train platform, they can just press some cosmic reset button and replay the level,” I submit.
“Digitalization gave us convenience, but as a result we’ve lost touch with reality. It’s the same with food nowadays. Combini (convenience store) bentos and family restaurants are cheap and convenient, but what they offer is nutritional intake—not a meal. The pleasure lies in buying ingredients, putting in the effort to cook with your own hands, and sitting around a dining table and laughing with your companions.” And on Mickey K. goes...
BOOKS & MAGAZINES #003
Tokyo Bookstores Worth Visiting in the Digital Age － Aoyama Book Center/Tsutaya Roppongi/Junkudo