Jimbocho is Tokyo’s famous used-bookstore district. It caters to a variety of artistic interests and is well situated in central Tokyo for fast and easy access to other entertainments. For families, couples, or lone intellectuals, Jimbocho makes for a rewarding day in the heart of the bustling city, as Mario Leto explains.
Books for sale - image © Mario Leto
Here is the history of Jimbocho—formal name Kanda-Jimbocho—that you can read on hundreds of other websites with very little difference in wording: Jimbocho is named after the 17th-century samurai Jimbo Nagaharu who lived in the area; After the area was destroyed by fire in 1913, a man named Shigeo Iwanami opened up a bookstore which later become a publishing house that still exists to this day. The rest is history.
Jimbocho Station - image © Mario Leto
As usual, any number of nearby stations can be used to access the area, but really there is only one choice: Jimbocho Station, which is on the Toei Mita Line (19 minutes, ￥270 from Meguro), the Toei Shinjuku Line (9 minutes, ￥220 from Shinjuku), and the Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line (12 minutes, ￥200 from Shibuya). As seen in the photo above, the fame of the district is written on the subway walls.
Jimbocho map - image © Mario Leto
Jimbocho boasts anywhere from 150 to 180 bookstores, depending on which source you reference, and most of the those stores are on the south side of Yasukuni-dori, the vertical main street on the map above. The other two streets worth walking in the area are the horizontal main street, Hakusan-dori, and the small street in the upper right quadrant of the map, Kandasuzuran-dori.
Hakusan-dori - image © Mario Leto
My own day began from Exit A4 around 10:30 a.m. on a hot and steamy Saturday afternoon. Most shops don't open until then, so a late morning start is recommended. I turned left onto Hakusan-dori and strolled toward Suidobashi Station on the Kanda River. Some savvy locals, as seen in the picture above, had taken their place in line to await the opening of a famed yaki-soba (fried noodles) restaurant. I happened to walk down the same street four hours later and there was still a line of people patiently waiting for a bite to eat.
Sri Balaji south Indian restaurant - image © Mario Leto
As midday was fast approaching, I was getting a bit peckish myself and decided on grabbing a bit to eat before the bookstores opened in earnest. I settled on a south Indian cuisine restaurant named Sri Balaji on the same side of Hakusan-dori as the subway exit but closer to Suidobashi Station. It opens at 11:00 and offers a tempting all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for ￥1800. I, of course, am much too experienced in the lures of Viking (the Japanese name for all-you-can-eat) feasts and instead opted for a more modest curry with traditional Indian bread.
Dry curry and roti for lunch - image © Mario Leto
I ordered the Gobi Aloo dry curry (￥1100) made with potatoes, onions, and cauliflower, and roti Indian bread (￥400), as pictured above. I washed it all down with an Indian King Fisher beer (￥650) and had a nice little chat with the shop manager about south Indian cuisine, traditional drinking vessels, and the language ability of his staff. Most, it turns out, are Indian men fresh off the boat, which means authentic Indian cuisine and decent English abilities. Communication: check. Lunch is from 11:00 to 15:00, dinner from 17:00 to 23:00.
Nihon University, Chiyoda Ward Campus - image © Mario Leto
After lunch I continued down Hakusan-dori toward Suidobashi Station. This was the far edge of Jimbocho and the home to Nihon University and several smaller educational institutions. Nihon University, shown in the picture above and affectionately known as Nichidai, is the largest university in Japan and, while not a paragon of academic achievement, does have a surprising list of alumni that includes the writers Ian Buruma and Banana Yoshimoto.
Down the alleyway - image © Mario Leto
With most shops having finally opened, I did an about-face and walked back down Hakusan-dori toward Yasukuni-dori where the majority of the bookstores are located. As is also well known about the area, most of the bookstores are located on the south side of the street where sun damage to the books is generally avoided. With that said, there are shops on both sides of the street and a thorough exploration is recommended.
Yamada Shoten bookstore and art gallery - image © Mario Leto
Arriving back at the corner of Hakusan-dori and Yasukuni-dori, I turned left onto Yasukuni-dori and promptly entered my first shop of the day: Yamada Shoten, or 山田書店 in Japanese characters. 'Yamada' is the proprietor's name and 'shoten' is the ubiquitous term for bookstore, literally meaning 'write shop'. If you come to Jimbocho, you would do well do remember those two characters.
Traditional art gallery at Yamada Shoten - image © Mario Leto
Yamada Shoten is all about art and has three floors which, from the bottom up, cater to used art books, traditional Japanese art, and modern Japanese art. The galleries on the second and third floors are small yet varied in the artwork they display and all work is for sale if you are so inclined. International travelers would probably like the second floor of traditional artwork, but it's hard to remove the traditional from the modern and so the third floor is sure to be a pleaser as well. Open 10:30 to 18:30 Monday to Saturday.
Back down Yasukuni-dori - image © Mario Leto
After Yamada Shoten, I continued walking up Yasukuni-dori away from Hakusan-dori. Once the street began to curve to the right and the bookshops seemed to peter out near the next large intersection, I crossed the street and headed back toward where I began. By the way, if you turn left at the big intersection that I just mentioned, you'll see Meiji University on the left and then Ochanomizu Station on the right, along the Kanda river. It is, after all, central Tokyo: Nothing is as far away as the trains and subways would have you believe.
Avert your virgin eyes - image © Mario Leto
Now that I was on the south side of Yasukuni-dori, the shops were abundant and varied. And it's not just books on sale in Jimbocho. There are magazines and artwork, art supplies and stationery, coffee shops, cute cafes, antiques, sundries, pottery, and children's toys. And porn. Soft porn. Old soft porn. So old and soft that Sports Illustrated is more risqué.
Komiyama Shoten vintage music posters - image © Mario Leto
One shop worth noting on the south side of Yasukuni-dori is Komiya Shoten, a vintage bookshop focusing on photography, contemporary art, and movie memorabilia, among a bunch of other artsy genres that fall under the catch-all heading of 'pop culture'. The shop attendants are friendly and helpful as well. Don't miss the vintage Star Wars toys on the second floor. Open from 11:00 to 17:30 on the weekend.
Everything under control, situation normal - image © Mario Leto
After browsing the shops on the east leg of Yasukuni-dori, return to Hakusan-dori, turn left, and walk about a block before turning left again onto Kandasuzuran-dori, which runs parallel to Yasukuni-dori. This narrow street is probably the quaintest, most frequented area of Jimbocho. There are plenty of shops and cafes here to while away the day in.
English books - image © Mario Leto
Are there books in languages other than Japanese? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but in smaller quantities and only at select shops. English, of course, is the most abundant foreign language available, and most that you will find are mass market paperbacks, classic literature, or purse-busting vintage first editions. There is one exception to this, but more on that later.
Books Sanseido - image © Mario Leto
There are quite a few shops that I recommend along Kandasuzuran-dori, so I'll offer just three to get started. The first one is the massive bookstore chain Sanseido Bookstore, Ltd., whose flagship shop is in Jimbocho. They do have an English book section, but I much more enjoyed the first floor inside the entrance where an assortment of traditional Japanese goods were being sold, including pottery, teapots, summer tenugui towels, paper weights, children's games, and plenty more. Open every day from 10:00 to 20:00.
Bumpodo art supply shop - image © Mario Leto
Another shop worth your time is Bumpodo (pdf) art supply and stationery shop. According to the shop's own English pamphlet, it was established in 1887 and was the first art supply retailer to make and sell oil-based paints in Japan. Today, this three-story establishment caters to a much wider assortment of creative interests, including design, sculpture, and engraving. Be sure to check out the section of tools for manga illustration in the basement. Open daily from 10:00 to 19:30.
Paper Back Cafe - image © Mario Leto
The third and final place on Kandasuzuran-dori worth mentioning is the Tokyodo bookstore and Paper Back Cafe. This swanky modern establishment offers the complete coffee-book-shopping experience. Unfortunately, there are no foreign books in the bookstore section, but the cafe is bilingual and offers plenty of non-smoking seating over two floors to rest your weary bones. I ordered myself a large iced coffee (￥280) and took it to go because when it comes to books, stationery, and art supplies, I am tireless. Open from 10:00 to 19:00.
Jimbocho Theater - image © Mario Leto
Okay. There is one more place demanding your attention in this quadrant of Jimbocho, but technically it is not on Kandasuzuran-dori. The place is the Jimbocho Theater (pdf) which is on a perpendicular side road not far from Bumpodo. It contains a cinema, a storytelling theater, and an art space. It was completed in 2007 and was designed by the architectural firm Nikken Sekkei, which was the primary designer of the Tokyo Sky Tree and Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona. If you don't visit for a show or performance, at least check out the award-winning architecture.
Used books on the street - image © Mario Leto
After completing a full circuit of the relatively short Kandasuzuran-dori, I was back at Hakusan-dori with the headquarters of the Salvation Army across the street. I crossed the street, turned right, and walked a block back to Yasukuni-dori where I turned left to explore the other half west of Hakusan-dori. There are plenty more shops to browse, but one in particular stands out, especially if you have children or if you are a true intellectual with an interest in the humanities.
Book House - image © Mario Leto
The building has two floors and each floor is a different shop. The ground floor is a bookstore called Book House and the whole place is for children. The center of the shop is a creative space for book readings and artsy activities run by shop attendants. Most of the children's books are in Japanese but there is a surprisingly large section for books in English. This establishment is highly recommended if you have been dragging your kids around to musty adult second-hand bookstores all day. It is the perfect 'thank you' to the little ones for allowing you for once in their lives to indulge in one of your own interests.
Kitazawa Shoten - image © Mario Leto
The shop on the second floor is Kitazawa Shoten and the entire space is dedicated to used and rare English-language books. There are about four long aisles with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and stacks of books on the floor as well. In the rear there are large dark-wood shelves with doors housing what could only be rare, very rare, books. Supposedly some of the books at Kitazawa date back to the Middle Ages. Not sure about that, but there does seem to be a large amount of money in that shop in the form of rare books.
Kitazawa used books - image © Mario Leto
My own browsing produced a first edition of Sylvia Plath's final posthumous collection of poetry, Winter Trees, for around $120. But don't despair: there are racks with cheaper fare, depending on what you're looking for. The content focus is the humanities, so literature, history, art, and linguistics books are most prevalent. Check the website hyperlinked above for a full list replete with prices. Open 11:00 to 18:30 on weekdays, 12:00 to 17:30 on Saturdays. Closed on Sunday.
One on every corner - image © Mario Leto
Once the bookstores seem to fade and other less interesting office buildings begin to take their place, you've likely reached the end of the Jimbocho book district. You can cross Yasukuni-dori and head back toward Hakusan-dori on the other side, but there is not much of note. For my own journey, I returned to Hakusan-dori and turned left to retrace my initial steps to browse the area that was asleep when I first arrived, and I found a couple gems.
What is this ancient contraption? - image © Mario Leto
For starters, if anyone knows what that gadget is in the photo above, then please say nothing to anyone for fear of disclosing your age. Can we even buy cassette players anywhere anymore? The most disturbing part of the cassette tape in the photo: It costs $10! After my confusion dispersed, I continued on my way, stopped at a traditional game shop called Okuno Karuta, and then finished up my Jimbocho adventure with a late-afternoon refreshment.
Biodynamie refreshment stand - image © Mario Leto
Not far from where I had lunch at the south Indian restaurant is a small chain cafe called Biodynamie. It humorously refers to itself as an Italian restaurant, cafe, and 'dive bar'. What could be more attractive? That wasn't a rhetorical question. And the answer is this: Outdoor stools to drink along the boulevard! On the bartender's recommendation, I ordered a Mojito and let the day's exhaustion slowly fade away.
Mojito at Biodynamie - image © Mario Leto
As mentioned earlier, central Tokyo is host to any number of entertainment activities, many within reasonable walking distance of each other. In this particular section of town, there are a few options worth mentioning. One of them is Tokyo Dome City with its attendant amusement facilities near Suidobashi station on the Sobu train line. Tokyo Dome stadium is home to the most famous baseball team in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants. It also frequently hosts headliner concerts. I saw the Rolling Stones play there back around the turn of the millennium. Check out the hyperlinked website above for details on the other amusement possibilities.
Browsing books - image © Mario Leto
Also worth mentioning are the nearby sporting goods district and the musical instruments district. The former is along Yasukuni-dori past Sanseido, and the latter is toward Ochanomizu Station and Meiji University. The abundance of universities in the area and their youthful clientele go far in explaining the presence of these two other districts.
Persistence pays - image © Mario Leto
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that the Jimbocho district is home to the Literature Preservation Society of Japan and the Tokyo Book Binding Club. I know, I know. That's why I put this information in the final paragraph. Anyway, now you know and now you can forget. Regardless, the Jimbocho district is a must-see for travelers curious about Japan's more intellectual and artistic contributions to humanity. It's a relaxed day that could also incorporate other nearby attractions depending on your energy levels. And the best part of it all: No mimes!
About Mario Leto
Mario Leto is assistant professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. His research and writing interests include travel, literature, and media discourse on food and dietary alternatives.
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