I spent the better part of last Saturday wandering in and around my favorite Tokyo neighborhood, Kanda-Jimbocho. K-J, if you don’t know, is, for lack of a better description, Tokyo’s “booktown” (in the same way that Akihabara is Tokyo’s “Electric Town”). Within a several block radius, there must be upwards of 30 – 40 bookstores, most of them second-hand. I went armed with the indispensible Bookstores in Jimbocho (and Hongo) list from Evelyn Leeper (her list for the rest of Tokyo is here). I also went armed with a growing Amazon wish list, hoping I might get lucky and therefore avoid some prohibitive international shipping rates. And besides, virtual aisles may be dust and otaku-free but they’re decidedly not conducive to wandering.
And wander I did, from approximately 11am till 6pm. Some highlights:
Kitazawa Bookstore: This is where I started my day, it being the closest store to the Jimbocho subway exit I happened to pop my head out of. I knew they had English language books, but I was unprepared for an exclusively English language bookstore. Housed in a nice, airy building, with well-spaced out aisles, and subdued lighting, this store was comfortable, and eminently browsable, and had by far the best all-around selection of English-language books. I actually ended my Jimbocho tour back here, for they were the only store that stocked what ended up being my sole purchase on this day, Making Sense of Japanese Grammar, a small book published recently by the University of Hawaii Press, written by two linguists but in such a way that a layperson such as myself can understand the concepts.
Tokyodo. This store is dominated physically and perhaps figuratively by the looming presence of its 8-floor gorilla neighbor Sanseido, the largest bookstore in Jimbocho and the flagship for the company’s 21-store strong nationwide chain. And truthfully, with respect to English titles, on the whole Tokyodo can’t compete even with Sanseido’s fairly tepid English-language section on the 5th floor. However, forcing myself to walk amongst impenetrable stacks of Japanese language books in the hopes that I might come upon some English-language titles, what should I find almost tucked away out of sight but a huge selection of critical and theoretical English-language works, books like October: The Second Decade, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (Andrew Ross), Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Frederic Jameson), well, you get the idea. In short, not exactly bedtime reading and not exactly the stuff I’m hankering for at the moment, but boy am I glad to know that this section exists. You know, it’s funny, but I was led to the section because while in another part of the store I could hear the Japanese women exclaiming something along the lines of “I found it, I found it” to her girlfriend. I have no idea what theoretical tome she found, but I got the distinct impression she had been all over Tokyo looking for this book. No wonder, as Tokyodo’s theory and criticism section would rival or surpass just about any American bookstore (if they even had such a section) short of a Powell’s or City Lights.
Hara Shobo. One of the reasons Kanda-Jimbocho is my favorite Tokyo district, and why I spent so much time there during my first trip to Japan in 1997, is that along with its bevy of bookstores, there are several ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) galleries and ukiyo-e related bookstores. In 1997 on a tourist budget, I returned to the states loaded down with around 20 ukiyo-e books bought in K-J (only to ironically ship these books back to Japan with the rest of my stuff earlier this year), as well as a sizable collection of cheap but suitable for framing print reproductions. Now on a resident’s budget, I could only window shop, but I was very tempted at Hara Shobo by some wonderful Hokusai diptyches for 3000 yen (they were quite beat up but at that price they must have been older reproductions rather than originals). The gallery/bookstore on the second floor of the building is quite small and narrow, but very intimate, and it was a pleasure just to flip through the various stacks of prints.
Umi kaiten-sushi. Well, there were no books here, not that I could see anyway. This is a “conveyor belt” sushi establishment, and if you know me you know that I view kaiten-sushi establishments as the ultimate all-in-one source of edification for my mind, body and soul. This particular kaiten-sushi joint, while not of the low-rent every-plate-100-yen type sushi eatery that I usually frequent, does have a decent enough section of sushi making the rounds on blue and white 120 yen each plates, enough for me to squeeze out 8 plates and only force myself to repeat my selection once, and this willingly, on two plates of perfectly chilled maguro (tuna) laid over an ample supply of the “green stuff” (wasabi) that made my sinuses open up like the Red Sea and my eyes mist over. But truth be told, I stopped in here because it maintains a special place in my Tokyo history, it being the first kaiten-sushi place that Naoko took me to during my first trip here in 1997 (though not my first ever Tokyo kaiten-sushi place; that honor goes to a relatively forgettable establishment in Roppongi). In fact, during that 1997 trip I believe I ate at Umi on something like 4 different occassions (keep in mind that my trip as a whole was only 9 days long!).
Charles E. Tuttle. Unfortunately, the store owned by the venerable publisher of many Japan-related titles was not a highlight of my K-J trip, but rather a disappointment. Much like it’s rather weak attempt to change its name to “Tokyo Random Walk” (through some marker-scribbled construction paper signs taped to one of its windows and practically unnoticeable from the outside), I just didn’t get the feeling the store was trying very hard. Actually, the place felt very similar to a musuem store, with an ample selection of large (and expensive) art, photography, design, and architecture titles, but comparatively few Japan-related titles in fiction or history categories, and whereas Kitazawa was full of Tuttle-published titles, they were surprisingly in short supply at the Tuttle store.
Pictures taken in Jimbocho on this day can be seen here (click on the July 27, 2002 link).