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1) Read Like a Samurai

Jimbocho: Tokyo's Underappreciated Book Town


Jimbocho (神保町) — sometimes alternately spelled with an "n" as Jinbocho and often referred to by its nickname of Jimbou (じんぼう) — has long been famous among the Japanese as a district for books.

Named after 17th century samurai Nagaharu Jimbo (神保長治) — who once had an estate in the area — Jimbocho was chosen to host Meiji University (明治大学) and Senshu University (専修大学) when it was redeveloped in the late 1800s during the Meiji era (明治時代). In the subsequent decades, the surrounding neighborhood became a nexus for academics and publishers that continues to the present day.

Some tourists do go to Jimbocho. It is labeled in the metro on some maps as "Book Town" in English and there are a sprinkling of hotels in the area, but it doesn't crack the top 100 attractions on the big tourist advisory sites. The vast majority of tourists in Tokyo never make it to Jimbocho, and humbly suggests that tourists should pay more attention to the district than they do.

Although Jimbocho is not far away physically from the tech district of Akihabara (秋葉原), it is a world away conceptually. A common preconceived notion of Tokyo is that it is all high-tech video games, gadgets, and robots; it is beneficial for a visitor to see Jimbocho to dispel this stereotype alone. Japan has not abandoned physical media as quickly as many countries in the West and East alike, so physical books, music, and movies still are quite popular. Depending on where you are from, your age, and your attention to details, this focus on physical media even can make Tokyo feel quaint or old fashioned at times. This observation isn't intended to be critical, just a recognition that although Tokyo had videophones and mobile broadband years before the rest of the world, Japan often evolves on its own timeline as its own ecosystem. From an outside perspective, Tokyo often can feel just as much like the past as it can feel like the future.

Nevertheless, if you talk with those in publishing in Japan, they probably will tell you that Jimbou's glory days are behind it — just as they likely are for the written word entirely as people around the globe become less literate and more visual. However, according to the official Japanese-language website that represents booksellers in Jimbou, there still are at least 176 book stores in the district, and it remains the "world's largest book town."

Seven Jimbou Selections

The official website has a Japanese-language map of Jimbou in PDF format, but if you don't read Japanese and find the full list overwhelming, some additional guidance can be useful.

The main street — Yasukuni-dori (靖国通り) — is mostly tree-lined, but it is large and often noisy, whereas the small-scale Suzuran Street (神田すずらん通り), around the corner, is our favorite in the area. Suzuran commonly is used for street festivals and other gatherings, but it is a pleasant walk all the time. As is common for areas around universities, Jimbou tends to wake up late, so an afternoon or early evening visit is recommended.

Just as does for the high-tech Akiba (秋葉), here are seven stores in the proudly low-tech Jimbou that you may like. Some of these shops sell English-language books; and others sell artwork, art supplies, and collectibles. Jimbou definitely is a great neighborhood to find a useful souvenir or gift that is more interesting than typical tourist tat.

These stores are organized in the order of a convenient walk on our map below:

  1. Isseido Books (一誠堂書店) - A beautiful store with an enormous selection of rare and antique Japanese books as well as a good selection of English language titles. Their Edo and Meiji-era prints definitely would make a unique souvenir.
  2. Sawaguchi Books (澤口書店) - A modest used bookstore that mostly sells Japanese-language titles, but tucked away upstairs it has a cozy "relaxing space" with vending machine coffee and a lovely picture window to watch the world go by.
  3. Komiyama Bookstore (小宮山書店) - Established in 1939, this bookstore specializes in new and used art and photography books. It hosts an art gallery with rotating collections on its upper floors, as well.
  4. Shosen Grande (書泉グランデ) - A famous store for Japanese books, collectibles, and board games meticulously organized by subculture on each floor. The sixth floor is entirely dedicated to trains and buses, for example, and practically is considered a shrine for transit enthusiasts.
  5. Books Sanseido (三省堂書店) - The flagship location of a large Japanese chain, this bookstore sells a small number of English-language books and a nice selection of gifts including Japanese pottery, tea, and toys.
  6. Bumpodo (文房堂) - Established in 1887, this stationery store sells paper, paints, printmaking materials, gifts, and more. It has a nice cafe on the third floor, too.
  7. Kitazawa Bookstore (北沢書店) - Established in 1902, and specializing in English-language titles in literature, humanities, and the sciences, this is a must-see for English books in Tokyo.

Part of the fun of this kind of neighborhood is just wandering around, so you definitely should feel free to explore and find your own favorites. If books are your primary interest, the majority of the stores are on the south side of streets facing north to protect the paper from the sun, an impressive attention to detail.

To eat in Jimbou, there literally are hundreds of options, but three places that we enjoyed at one time or another include Kitchen Nankai (キッチン南海) for Japanese curry, a branch of the Yotteba (酔っ手羽) chain for Izakaya, and Takano (タカノ) for tea.

We've mapped out our preferred walk below in a logical loop from and back to Jimbocho Station.

How to Get Here: Take the Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line (Purple), Toei Metro Shinjuku Line (Leaf), or Toei Metro Mita Line (Blue) to Jimbocho Station (Z07, S06, I10). Our suggested walk starts at Exit A7, which places you on the correct side of the street near the heart of the bookstores and leaves via Exit A1.

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  • Writing & Photos By Brock Kyle. All Rights Reserved. Published 21 April 2018. Feedback.