“I have to go check out all of the English language Tokyo bookstores. The lady at the website assigned it to me,” I kept my gaze low, hoping to avoid the truth-eliciting stare my wife was able to summon during interrogations of this sort.
She knows better. “Bull! You’ll take any excuse to go to a bookstore! You volunteered to do it, didn’t you?”
“No.” But I would have. I have always loved books. I didn’t take up smoking in high school with the cool kids, because buying cigarettes would have cut into my book-buying funds. After I joined the Navy, I didn’t get a tattoo for the same reason. To this day, I’m the only un-tattooed sailor I know. I’m also the only one I know who can quote PJ O’Rourke.
“How much are you getting paid to do this?”
I said a number.
“That won’t pay for everything you’ll buy!”
“Oh, go ahead! Don’t bring back a library!”
Can’t promise anything.
Amazon delivers almost everywhere, and Amazon.co.jp has a few more features than I expected.
But first, I need an account. The site has the handy “English” option at the top that I’ve come to look for on major Japanese sites, so I switched to that. Other people have told me that they were able to log on to the .jp site with the account they made in their home country. No such luck for me. So, I’ll just make a new account–
What’s this? Can’t skip it. “Invalid furigana name?” What the hell is furigana? Googled it. Well, there’s something I didn’t know. I typed my name in hiragana in the box, and I was able to register. If you can’t do the same, find a Japanese friend to help you.
I did a search for one of my favorite books, The Tao of Pooh. The book was available, but the site shifted back to Japanese. Was there no way to check out Benjamin Hoff’s classic on Amazon’s site in eigo? Not a problem if you recognize Amazon’s “add to cart” button, but jarring nonetheless. I was able to backtrack a bit and find a “shop in English” section, but difficulties were encountered.
I was able to browse the Kindle section without incident. I did a search for Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket, and the results came up in Japanese (which he probably would have found ironic). Unfortunately, it’s not available in Japan, which can be the case with many things you could normally get back where you’re from. Clicking on the first entry put me right back into English mode. Weird.
I looked into shipping and handling. Handling is 324 yen per order, and shipping is 514 yen (same day expedited) or 360 yen (Expedited and Scheduled delivery; all shipping is free to Prime members). You can have boxes delivered to a nearby convenience mart instead of your house. But why would you do that? Ok, maybe you are on the run from the law or have sketchy roommates who are always on the lookout for loose Tolstoy. If so, you can have your packages delivered to a nearby Lawsons, Family Mart, or Ministop by selecting “store pickup” under the shipping options. So if you can’t find what you want in any of the Tokyo bookstores we mention below, check online. It’s a sterile experience and not at all like going to one of the real Tokyo bookstores, but if you gotta have it…
But instructions for Amazon is not why you’re here, is it? Any fool with a bookmark (physical or computer) can find Amazon. I know what you want.
You want that smell. That lovely perfume of of words trapped between covers. You want to roam around a Tokyo bookstore, to browse, and to find something new. Something that you didn’t know existed a few minutes ago but now cannot do without. Think that’s impossible in Tokyo? It’s not even difficult. And I spent two days (and a pretty good amount of cash) proving it.
Have you considered your local library? Most libraries in the Tokyo area have a selection of English books. If you are a resident, you can get a library card with proof of residence (I used my Residence Card). If not, no one minds if you come in to browse. My local library has a few full bookshelves, mostly popular fiction from the past two decades. Do note that if you need some sort of reference material (encyclopedias, language books) that they will be grouped in the reference section, not with the other English books. Maybe not the same selection that you could get at one of the local Tokyo bookstores, but it’s free.
Website: Tokyo library; check your local area for web accessibility.
Book-Off is a chain of used Tokyo bookstores that can be found throughout the city and beyond. Normally they sell Japanese books and manga, video game stuff, movies, etc. Book-Off’s Tokyo bookstores have actually spun off into other areas, such as Hard-Off (stop giggling, it’s for housewares, clothing, home electronics, and the like), used clothing, and an assortment of other reusable materials.
Most of Book-Off’s Tokyo bookstores have an English section somewhere in their collection, but don’t expect to find much. The books are usually airport cast-offs, bizarre cookbooks from the 90s, novelizations of movies and popular fiction, etc. They have a 108 yen paperback section, just don’t expect to find a great selection.
“And where are the Book-Offs?” you might ask. Well, that’s tricky–if you don’t already know where one is, and you can’t read the Japanese page of Book-Off locations (which, for whatever reason, will not go through Google Translate), you might be out of luck. But not by much, given their selection. But they are common enough that the locals should be able to point you towards the closest location.
With the demise of The Blue Parrot in Takadanobaba and the apparent dissolution of Good Day Books in Gotanda, Infinity Books is the only game left in town for second-hand English Tokyo bookstores.
Infinity Books is roomy and cozy. The books are only split between fiction and non-fiction–you’ll find sci-fi novels right next to historical romances and murder mysteries. It sounds like a strange way to organize, but I liked it. You may not find the exact book you want, but you’ll find something. And when you find that something, take it to the back of the shop. There are a few tables that are better lit, as well as…a bar?
Yes indeed. Nick Ward, the owner and proprietor, ran a bar (The Fiddler, in Takadanobaba) prior to opening Infinity Books. He keeps Yebisu and Bass on tap, the perfect complement for the thinking drinker’s new book. He also ran Caravan Books back in the days before he moved his operation online. “The costs were enormous. The problem was that I was doing the same thing I’m doing now–six days a week, watching a computer screen, waiting for an order to come in. Only there was no one to talk to, no new people coming around. My wife finally told me to get all of the books out of the house, so I opened this place.”
As far as the books go, you can visit and browse in person, or check online by category or the offline search service. Infinity Books takes trades, depending on whether or not Nick wants them; shelf space is limited. If he likes what you bring, Nick offers store credit (around 35% of the resale value) or cash (around 15%). He also frequently holds events (such as the acoustic jams every second Saturday of the month)–great for meeting new people, local musicians, and other book lovers.
Infinity has a rotating cast of characters, most of whom have followed the Yorkshireman from Caravan Books and The Fiddler. In my short time there, I met a pair of Canadian acoustic musicians, a Korean woman who sings classical Japanese songs, and an Irishman who teaches at a nearby university. However, I didn’t meet the ghost. Nick swears that she (it’s a woman, according to the people who have seen her) stomps around the store at night and throws things. Occasionally, she goes upstairs to the apartment building above the shop. “People there have seen her,” he says. He keeps a glass of beer over the bar for her, in case she gets thirsty. So far, she hasn’t drunk it. Maybe she doesn’t like Yebisu.
Nearest Station: 5-minute walk from Honjo-Azumbashi Station exit A1 (click on the Google Map for walking directions)
Hours of Operation: Open Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 11pm, Sundays and Holidays 11am – 6pm. Closed Mondays, open late for events.
Tokyo Bookstores : Kinokuniya Main Store Shinjuku
The website lists the Tokyo bookstore as being in the Takashimaya Times Square building, which is easily reached from the New South Exit of Shinjuku station. I go inside, look at the floor guide, and see the Kinokuniya listed as being in the B1. Easy!
Not really. The moment I stepped off the escalator, I knew something was up. As with the basements of most department stores in Japan, Takashimaya Times Square’s basement was a gigantic supermarket. I found a sign pointing to “Kinokuniya” and followed it, where I found…a grocery store?
As it turns out, books are just one part of the Kinokuniya business. I managed to find another sign pointing “to the bookstore” (apparently someone got tired of lost foreigners raiding the vegetable section for the latest issue of The Economist). The sign leading to the bookstore led me to a dimly lit, somewhat scary-looking bare hallway. Strange artwork, not quite graffiti, was scrawled on the walls. No problem, I’ve braved worse for my literary fix. Still, I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted the elevator at the end of the hall. A sign next to the elevator informed me that the foreign books were on the sixth floor.
Books Kinokuniya is one of the big-box Tokyo bookstores. Inside, the place was indistinguishable from a Barnes and Noble in the US. The elevator opened into an extensive children’s and young adult’s section, meandering into a magazine section with the latest issues of what you’re looking for. Football magazines (American and metric) were next to Newsweek and Time. Next was a large section on comics, both translated Japanese manga and American graphic novels.
Moving on, there were a large number of scholarly works and textbooks on various topics. The “local” section featured the translated works of Japanese authors (the works of Haruki Murakami and Eiji Yoshikawa shelved next to Rashamon and collections of Japanese fairy tales). There were also large sections devoted to books in French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
If you’re looking for it, Kinokuniya Main Tokyo bookstores in Shinjuku probably has it. They have a “Book Import Department”, but no one there could answer any of my questions. Maybe I just caught them at the wrong time, but I got the impression that the staff wasn’t very knowledgeable about what was on the shelves. If you want it, you better know where it is.
Nearest Station: 6-minute walk from Yoyogi Station , inside the Takeshimaya Times Square Building, 6th floor (click on the Google Map for walking directions)
Hours of Operation: Open Daily 10am – 20:30 pm
Don’t do what I did. I left Tokyo station at the North exit, crossed the street, and started walking around. It took me an hour to find Maruzen Marunouchi Main Tokyo bookstores in this fashion.
Do this instead. Inside Tokyo station, go towards the North exit. Instead of leaving the station at the exit, instead turn as if you are going to the Subway Tozai Line (blue circle). Walk until you see Mr. Minit; it should be on your right.
Across from Mr. Minit is a sketchy-looking exit. It is unmarked; there is no indication as to where it might lead. Strange for orderly Japan, right? Well, if you go up through this exit, it puts you right at the front door of Maruzen Marunouchi Main Store. As soon as you leave the station, crane your neck and look straight up. You will see the big M logo.
Maruzen is also big box store, though their English section is smaller than Kinokuniya’s in Shibuya. The fourth floor is where the foreign books are located (in addition to English, there are a number of German and French books). The escalator puts you right in front of that eternal bookstore fixture, the cafè. Turn right to get to the good stuff.
The new releases are right up front, and a fiction section was behind that. Both had a good selection. Going in deeper, I found an extensive children’s section, including a number of Golden Books that I knew from when I was just a ‘lil reader. I pulled one off the shelf–Lightning McQueen is having an adventure of some sort. So much for the classics. Still, they had The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, which certainly counts in their favor.
Of special interest to English teachers and the parents of young children will be the large section with Oxford Graded Readers and Penguin Active Reading books, to help your kid/student with their vocabulary and reading skills. Another thing that caught my eye was the large collection of Oxford Very Short Introductions. These books (currently around 400 different volumes are in print) take topics such as Descartes, AIDS, American History, Fractals, etc. and distill the topic to around 150 pages of easy-to-understand reading. If you want to learn something new but don’t know where to start, these books are great entry points.
After an extensive non-fiction section, the rest of the fourth floor of the Maruzen is taken up with various frip-frappery with only vague connections to books. I could understand the stationery and the pens (even the 10,000 yen pens), but purses? Ties? It just threw off my groove.
Nearest Station: 1-minute walk from Tokyo Station (click on the Google Map for walking directions)
Hours of Operation: Open daily 9am – 9pm
Leave Shibuya station via the Hachiko exit. Go straight ahead to the busiest crosswalk in the world and look to your right. You should be able to see the yellow “Tower Records” sign down the street.
When I first got to Japan in 1997, Tower Records was the place to go if you wanted any English books and magazines from any Tokyo bookstores. The foreign books section took up the entire seventh floor and had anything you might want. The comics and art books gave that part of the store an “underground” vibe (as much as you can get while shopping at a corporate juggernaut, anyway).
In 2012, the foreign bookstore moved from the seventh floor to the second as part of a remodeling and restructuring. No longer spacious, the bookstore now had to share half of the floor with a cafè. Since then, the selection of English books and magazines has shrunk, encroached upon by Japanese books of similar flavors. This might be a great place to get a popular fiction book for your Japanese friend that you have read in English, but the pickings are starting to get slim. One gets the feeling that this bookstore may not be around much longer.
Nearest Station: 5-minute walk from Shibuya Station (click on the Google Map for walking directions)
Hours of Operation: Open Daily 10am – 11pm