Finding and buying English books in Tokyo:
Weekdays are filled with reading; on the train mostly is when I read. Rolling out of bed and into a morning train, I sit (if a seat can be found) or stand. A book betwixt fingers. There is a sullen but romantic quality to it; reading by violent glow of fluorescent light and smashed between this person and that one. It is, however, a great pleasure of mine and a true saving grace to my morning. This book will end, and another begins (eventually).
I read, write, and speak no Japanese making it a special difficulty to find books to read. Imported books can be quite expensive too. If you like, and you have the time, you could translate from Japanese. It’s tedious but an interesting process. For me that’s too much; I’ll stick to buying English editions.
So, it starts a race to the page (a new page). Where to find English books in Tokyo; here’s my top book stores.
Jimbocho, a city of used books, is close to me by train. We begin here. Needless to say, there are so many book stores to choose from there—said to be over 180 in the area of a few kilometers.
Some history, a fire in 1913 left the area shattered. Jimbocho, named after a samurai of the 17th century Jinbo clan begin to rebuild. A professor by the name of Iwanami Shoten founded a book store there; later it became Iwanami Shoten publishing
Not just book stores (書店) can be found here notable cafes, art supply stores (I like Bumpodo), antique shops, and universities too (at least three of them).
begin here (my map):
- Kitazawa Bookstore, in business for many years (since 1902), this little second-floor book store is home to a peachy bit of English literature. Most books are had by way of the local universities; this categorizes its stock too. The books of this store located just off the Jimbocho station are mostly academic in content. Philosphy, folklore, critical theory, and classics can be found here—at reasonable prices. good for a walk around, it’d be best to enjoy a length browse in solitude.
- Komiyama Book Store, younger than the last book store by 37 years, it’s a bookstore built like a shoe-box. Upended on street corner, walk West after exiting Jimbocho station to find it. Recognizable by a street-gazing Astro-boy, the two-story Komiyama Book Store plays home with a collection of photography and art books predominantly. They sell books of recent history too, but truly they specialize in art books. Not an exemption to the rule, Komiyama Book Store will run you in cash for a book of art. That’s the case in most places though, but for their carefully curated and expansive selection it’s worth the trip to many.
- Books Sanseido, located further West than Komiyama, it is even older than the last two—founded in 1881. The Jimbocho store is big, five stories big. Making it the largest bookstore in the area its five stories are mostly home to Japanese books. Back in the day Books Sanseido (which translates to three provinces bookstore) was famous for publishing dictionaries specifically. Since then, they have expanded their stock widely. English books can be found for okay prices in-store and online.
- Isseido Booksellers, another bookshop near the station, it is famed for a selection of rare and old editions. A gorgeous shop with gorgeous books. A wonder to the book-binding and printing enthusiast, its upstairs carries foreign books for sale. Within Isseido’s over 80-year-old brick walls, you’ll find a scholarly leaning stock to browse.
- Nanyodo Book Store, five minutes West then South brings you to a small six story building. Striking you as you walk by, it’s a monolithic slab of rock with a repetitive square relief complexion. Right on the front is two full-length floors-to-ceiling windows—one for each of the store’s floors. Its specialty is in architecture books and publications. Due to its niche status, expect books to be on the more expensive side.
Next on our tour of Tokyo’s English book offerings takes us to Nakameguro. A quiet and upscale neighborhood a fair trip to the South by train from Jimbocho. Most well-known are its shops and cafes that dot the edges of Nakameguro River and the fantastic cherry trees that bloom there. If you go for nothing else, the promenade is excellent for a summer’s walk.
Most books you find here will be expensive, but the area is trendy and you can get great art books.
- Tsutaya Nakameguro, it’s part of a flashy chain of Tokyo based bookstores. This one is located under the bridge just outside the station. Tsutaya’s façade is distinctive for its glowing “T” motif and is designed by Klein Dytham architecture. The inside features books in a wide array, music, a café, and places for gifts too. While for the most part, like any store in Japan, it caters to a Japanese audience, you can get English books here. Prices are high here.
- POST, a little further away than the last one, POST deals in high-end art and design books. That’s really the name of the game in Nakameguro: new and beautiful books that match beautiful exteriors. From the outside it’s a cool and unassuming place; one large window opens the space to the street, and in its corner red letters read POST; it might be hard to spot the place. Its stock is mostly of not-so-easy to find contemporary photography books, but it also features books on architecture, painting, and art in general.
- Cow Books, a small shop only seven minutes by foot of the Naka-Meguro station, it’s a small shop open directly on the river. Of the three shops discussed so far in Nakameguro Cow Books is the only one specializing in second-hand books and periodicals. The exterior is simple, featuring one window to the inside. What makes it stand out is a small black-and-white cow at the door blazoned with the store’s namesake. Like Post, this café and bookstore combo deals mostly in art books. Be warned, prices can be high here.
- Dessin, the final stop on our tour of Nakameguro is a very small store on the corner. Completely minimal, it’s glass front is all you see on your short four-minute walk from the station. Look inside and you’ll find a well curated shop of world-class photography and art monographs. Unlike the other shops on this list, Dessin features a gallery on its second floor. Prices can be high, but that is the case for most art books.
Leaving Nakameguro, I’ll give some honorable mentions too.
- Book Off stores, considered some of the best book stores on the cheap side, Book Off has a smattering of stores all over Tokyo. Naturally, they are Japan’s largest chain of second-hand bookstores (866 locations). Book Off hasn’t been in business a very long time—founded in 1991. Unlike most of the stores in Nakameguro, these are dirt cheap; even the most expensive books will only run you 1,000 JPY. Owing the stores’ sizes, you typically find English and foreign books with ease.
- Tsutaya Books (not in Nakameguro), these stores are gorgeous and sometimes bizarre. For instance, Tsutaya Book Apartment (Shinjuku, Tokyo) has the biggest gimmick of the bunch; it allows short-term residents shelter, books, and showers. The interior, intriguing too, features hanging plants, well-lit minimalist bookshelves, and large booths to recline in. The basement even features a sake bar. Other Tsutaya Bookstores are much more conventional but are often keen examples of good looking architecture. Frequently they collaborate with Klein Dyhtham architects (see T-Site Daikanyama & T-Site Nakameguro).
- Craigslist, I know It’s not specifically Japanese, but you can get some great deals here. There’s even a section specifically for books. You never know what you might find here as it updates all the time. One of the best parts about Craigslist is that some people just give away their stuff for free. Maybe if you’re really lucky you might chance upon that long-sought book and not pay a dime. The two major downsides are that you never know what will go on the site, and you may have to travel a good distance to get the book. Either way, I’m a huge supporter of Craigslist and have used it for years.
- Amazon.co.jp, really whenever you can buy local. Supporting the shops that give character to an area is so important, but Amazon.co.jp makes things so convenient for everything. While finding books like the ones in Nakameguro might be difficult or require even higher prices, you can find most things for really cheap. What’s even better is that when you have Prime, deliveries are even faster. It’s ridiculous, some users report same day delivery within just twelve hours. Okay, that’s something; most books you could want, free shipping, and fast shipping, it has it all.
- Infinity Books, just a six-minute walk West of Asakusa will net you one of the most extensive English book collection in Tokyo. It’s across the Sumida river and into Sumida city. Walking up to Infinity Books is unimpressive, it’s a whole in the wall with a café and performance space. It’s worth the trip in for great prices, but before you go check their website. While it’s a little clunky, you can browse most of their collection of books. With over 15 hundred English books across a range of topics, you can find most of anything you are looking for.
- Kinokuniya, these stores are part of the largest bookstore chain in Japan. You can find them all over Tokyo—they were founded in Shinjuku 92 years ago. They’ve been around for a while. Interestingly enough, the store was originally a for the sale of lumber and charcoal until the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake. Then, in 1945, the building burned down during an American bombing but reopened the same year. Kinokuniya’s Shinjuku branch, the one that burned down, is the chain’s oldest and largest bookshop. This store is reputed to house one of the most extensive selections of English books.
- Junkodo, another one of Japan’s bookstore chains, the most significant of its stores is in Ikebukuro. Walk 140 meters from Ikebukuro station and you’re there. This massive bookstore is the largest in all Japan; it features eight full floors. Within is plenty of sitting room and even a café if you like. There is also an entire floor dedicated to English books. Prices are standard here.
Your local ward’s library, this one is a little obvious, but there’s library’s all over Tokyo. Temple University library has an especially good selection of books written in English. You can also find CDs, DVDs, print services, computers to use, and free Wi-Fi. By far it is the cheapest method of getting English books.
They can be found fairly easily on google maps. For maximum effect plug 図書館 (the Japanese word for library) into google.; you’ll get a selection of your nearest libraries.
To request a library card (required for borrowing) you’ll need to go in-person to the library. Be warned, this method is only for current residents of Japan. If you are studying abroad there this will work. Give the librarian proof of your residence and potentially proof of you work or study. Bring an ID from your Japanese workplace or school if you have one. Bring proof of your residence too.
Let the reading begin
There’s a lot of resources out there for books written in English all over the city of Tokyo. From the humble little used bookshop, to the high-end boutique shops of Nakameguro, to the titan-sized of chain stores throughout Japan. If you want fashionable art books, go to Nakameguro. Make a day out of a trip to Jimbocho and get lost in the labyrinthian used book stores. Maybe you prefer the convenience of online shopping. Your reason is a good reason to start reading.