Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

Well, I’d overestimated my ability to blog while traveling so I apologize for having disappeared! We had a wonderful time in Japan and I am now back, finally getting over a very bad cold that I had caught the day we left for the airport. While my primary goal in Japan after seeing family, friends, and clients was to eat, I also made sure to check out the book scene in Tokyo. Japan has a strong literary and reading culture and was ranked #1 in number of bookstores in 2012 according to The World Cities Cultural Report released that year. Below is a small peak into Japan’s reading world:

First, the bookstores. I visited about seven or eight during my trip. According to The World Cities Cultural Report in 2012, Tokyo had 1,675 bookstores that year. There is also what is known as the Book District in the university town in Jimbocho – a half square kilometer of almost 160 used and rare bookstores. I spent a short afternoon walking around here, wishing that I could read Japanese as most of the books I found were in Japanese (naturally). The Book District is known to be the largest book market in the world.

The Book District




Junkudo, a popular bookstore chain -There were about 18 active cash registers and a staffer managing the queue. From my experience the major bookstores have as many as 5 to 8 floors of books.



A display of Haruki Murakami books at Junkudo


Ernest Hemingway and other western literature in translation at Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain with stores in the U.S., several Asian countries and Australia. They’ve recently remodeled one of the main stores to dedicate the entire top floor to foreign books and Japanese books in translation. I was quite impressed by their selection and the prices were not exorbitant. Wouldn’t it be something to find this kind of selection of foreign books at Barnes & Noble?


These English-language novels are labeled with corresponding TOEIC scores to assist non-native English speakers in choosing appropriate books. The TOEIC is the Test of English for International Communication, taken by many non-native English speakers who wish to qualify for various work and academic requirements. 


Japanese literature wrapped to ensure their good condition. I asked Max about these, and he thinks these may be out of print or somehow “special” books, since contemporary books for sale are not wrapped like this. I found shelves and shelves of these at one of the larger and more modern bookstores in the Book District.


And speaking of wrapped, whenever you buy a book in Japan, you have the option of getting it wrapped (usually in brown paper) for free. At first I thought this was to protect the book – and this is true – but when I started reading my purchase on the train I realized that the book cover holds another benefit: privacy. 


There are also many fancier book covers for sale at book and stationery stores, meaning that covering up is quite popular in Japan. Here is one that I found. I love Japanese English!


Some of our western feminist sensibilities might get a jolt when visiting Japan. In some bookstores are sections for “ladies,” but then maybe this is simply the Japanese equivalent of the labels “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.” (More knowledgeable readers, feel free to weigh in!) This photo is of the “ladies'” comics or manga section at a shopping mall bookstore. (Manga are also protected before purchase by cellophane ties or plastic wrap.)


And at last, my Japan finds, because I couldn’t visit without bringing back something for myself: Haruki Murakami’s (translated into English) memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, two books on speaking Japanese, a Japanese novella that a friend recommended to me as one way to practice Japanese, and this Kinokuniya tote bag. There were many Japanese books in translation that I wanted to get but I controlled myself, knowing that I can get them cheaper through the internet :-(. Plus I can only carry so much back in my suitcase…


Have you visited bookstores in other cities? What are your favorites? How is the literary scene in your city?

26 thoughts on “Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

    • Now in general is a great time to go! I read recently that tourism to Japan is at its highest level in decades. I found this trip that it is more English-friendly than ever before as well. Although the Japanese all study English in school, the majority are still very shy about using it, so when I lived there 10ish years ago I found it still a bit of a challenge to get around if you didn’t know any Japanese. But even out in our suburbs now I have found more English, and the trains are equipped with multilingual announcement recordings. In terms of weather I would say the fall is the best time to go, followed by spring, winter, and summer. Winters are fine but the summers are very hot and humid. June is not too hot yet but it’s the rainy season (though we had many sunny days this trip). I’m glad you are interested in going!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Great post. I’m dying to get to Tokyo; my husband goes occasionally for work, so I really should tag along one of these days (easier said than done)! The literary scene in Dublin, where I currently live is — not surprisingly — thriving. The best bookstores are small (nothing like The Strand, for sure), but well-stocked and generally staffed by knowledgeable folks…it’s a good place to be a reader!

    • That sounds wonderful! I have never been to Dublin but I would love to one day have the chance to go. I also hope you’ll be able to visit Tokyo before long – what a great excuse to go! Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Thanks, Emily! It’s usually a stressful trip (due to the work nature and running around to see lots of people) but we’ve learned over the years how to tweak and improve our experience!

  2. My favorite book store is Powell’s in Portland, OR – books, books and more books – love it 🙂 There is a really good book store in the city I live and it is in an old mansion – great selection of books – love the children’s section. Welcome Back 🙂

    • Thanks Renee! I’d love to see a bookstore that is housed in a mansion! There is nothing creative like that where I am. I have also heard so many good things about Powell’s. That is great that you have been there! I hope to go one day.

  3. Wow! The book district and that line in the bookstore are quite impressive. I can’t think of a single time I’ve ever seen 18 registers open at once in a bookstore. The only place I can remember visiting that might have 18 registers was Powell’s Bookstore. My initial reaction from reading your post and seeing all these beautifully protected books was that the country and people must really value books, access to books, and literary freedom in general. There is something so special about browsing the bookstore aisles with all those beautiful new books.

    • That’s a wonderful and thoughtful observation, Ngan. You are right. I hadn’t really thought of that, but your comment made me think of all the other things that the Japanese place great value on – the 4 seasons, children, the role of mothers, food, etc. And if you ever visited a friend or colleague in Japan you would be rolled out the red carpet. But getting back to books, my understanding is that e-readers have not played the role in Japan’s reading culture that they have here in the US – people are still very much fond of physical books.

    • Thanks, Carolyn! It’s interesting to see the different twists (?) on a universal interest. Now I’m curious to know what reading cultures in other countries are like…

  4. Welcome back, Cecilia! Loved these outtakes from Japan and we hope to visit in the next few years (my cousin lives in Japan). My father absolutely adored Japan and became enthralled with all of the cultural elements. He talked about this trip with such fondness that I want to go not only for myself, but for him too.

    I love Murakami and enjoyed that memoir in particular. Would love your thoughts after you finish reading his work.

    • Thanks, Rudri! I remember that you have a cousin in Japan and that we had first met that way (you had written a post about the tsunami in 2011). I am glad that she is back.

      I love that your father had visited and loved it. I am excited that you may visit some time soon. I will definitely love to hear all about it.

      I totally thought of you while I was reading Murakami’s memoir and was going to email you about it, in case you hadn’t read it! I thought it had you written all over it: running, writing, life. I am really enjoying it and hope to post about it before long.

  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed your trip to Japan, and I LOVE that you spent time in so many bookstores! This reminds me that I need to read another Murakami book (I’ve only read Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood so far). And yes, I absolutely wish that Barnes & Noble would carry more international titles — I would certainly read them! Finally, I loved your observation about the bookcovers as a way to ensure privacy. I could have used one of those when I was slogging through the god-awful 50 Shades of Gray… I’m still ashamed to admit that I read that terrible book! Welcome back, and I hope you get over your cold soon!

    • Haha, you crack me up! Well, you are not the only one who read the series. I wanted to bring some book covers back but I was afraid they wouldn’t fit the books here. How did you like Kafka on the Shore? It was one of the choices at our library (you get a free book for completing their summer reading program). I was afraid it might be too “out there” for me so instead I chose an Alice Munro collection. I read Norwegian Wood as well and understand that it is one of his more accessible novels. I really like his memoir.

  6. Those are some impressive stats about the book scene in Tokyo! I had no idea. It makes me curious about other countries, as well. It’s good to hear (and see) that you had a good trip. And nice to have you back! 🙂

  7. Pingback: Favorite Posts from July | Literary Vittles

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