Tokyo has both a rich literary history and, in the 21st century digital age, some of the most impressive brick-and-mortar bookshops to be found anywhere in the world: from the curiosity-filled used-book sellers at publishing stronghold Kanda-Jinbocho to gleaming new concept bookstores across town. It’s also a place where creative minds are doing new things with this age-old form of media: Tokyo is a major player in the ‘book hotel’ trend, while in Roppongi an ultra-stylish destination combines bookstore, library and café.
What about that language barrier? From a (supposedly) haunted secondhand book shop in the shadow of the Skytree, to a subterranean Ginza bar serving literary-themed cocktails, we’ve rounded up ten spots that book lovers unable to read a single Japanese character will still be able to enjoy.
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Roppongi’s Bunkitsu is singular in that it is a bookshop that charges an entrance fee. Doesn’t sound too enticing? Another way of looking at it is that for ¥1,500, you gain access to a vast, impeccably curated private library for a whole day, plus unlimited coffee and green tea to sweeten the deal.
A cool, radical reinvention of the longstanding Aoyama Book Center that previously stood here, Bunkitsu lets you purchase any titles that you fancy, or enjoy them at leisure in the sleek surroundings that, across various zones, recall a hip startup workplace, boutique hotel and contemporary art gallery. For serious concentration, you can seclude yourself in a glass-partitioned room dubbed the ‘Laboratory’.
Over 30,000 titles are displayed not only across rows of bookshelves, but also atop industrial-style wood pallets, with the latter each themed around pertinent topics to encourage discovery. The ‘library’ spans everything from philosophy to IT skills, and is particularly strong on art, travel and design books, image-rich genres which transcend language barriers. While browsing, you’re likely to get peckish: with this in mind, Bunkitsu’s in-house cafe serves dishes such as lobster rice gratin and pork curry, along with fruit juice, beer and a few desserts.
Book and Bed can be credited with kicking off Japan’s ‘book hotel’ mini-boom, and since debuting in Ikebukuro back in 2015, has replicated its concept in two other Tokyo districts (Asakusa and Shinjuku), as well as in Kyoto, Fukuoka and Osaka. More than simply ‘sleeping with books’, as is the concept at other book hotels, Book and Bed’s niche is almost like ‘sleeping as a book’: one-person sleeping compartments are built into the bookshelves, with the upper tiers accessed via ladder.
Book and Bed’s owners stress that their accommodation is geared more towards a night of blissful sleep brought about by bedtime reading, rather than by comfort, but it makes for a memorable one-night experience before staying elsewhere for the rest of your trip. It’s also possible to simply hang out in the spacious lounge during the day, flipping though the library of over 2,500 titles curated by hipster-friendly bookstore Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers (though Book and Bed is billed as an ‘accommodation bookstore’, these aren’t for sale). This Shinjuku location is the first Book and Bed to also incorporate a café.
Japanese writers have long been every bit as hard living and heavy drinking as any Hemingway or Charles Bukowski. They, along with other cultural figures, would traditionally hang out at a type of distinguished, gentleman’s club-like watering hole, clustered around Tokyo’s Ginza and Kanda-Jinbocho, known as the bundan bar.
Only a handful of these spots survive today, with our recommendation being Ginza’s subterranean Lupin. Opened way back in 1928, the bar counts legendary author Dazai Osamu as one of its most loyal regulars, alongside celebrated peers such as Yasunari Kawabata, Kafu Nagai and luminaries from other artistic fields. Nowadays, literature lovers head here to pay homage to past regulars, who are immortalised in portraits hanging on the walls, whilst sipping whisky, bourbon and a selection of cocktails.
Cow Books is nestled among the hip boutiques and eateries lining the Nakameguro stretch of the Meguro River: after sundown, you’ll spot it from afar thanks to the shop’s ‘cow’ logo being projected onto the pavement outside.
A bijou but superbly executed concept bookstore that blends traditionally ‘bookish’ furnishings with sleek modernity, the shop specialises in rare literary and art tomes from underground and countercultural movements of the postwar period: the Cow Books manifesto of ‘Everything for the Freedom’ appears on a ‘ticker tape’ LED strip running around the space’s perimeter.
The shop is perhaps more popular though for its range of stylish original goods, which includes bookends and book storage systems crafted from natural wood, t-shirts, tote bags and even ‘reading cushions’ designed to sit on your lap as you lose yourself in a favourite book.
The idea of drifting off to sleep with a book is so comfortably ingrained in our minds it’s surprising it took so long for enterprising minds to marry accommodation with the world of books. ‘Book hotels’ are now finally a trend in Tokyo as well as several over cities worldwide. Book Tea Bed Ginza (actually located in neighbouring Shimbashi), with sister hotels in Shinjuku, Azabu-Juban and Izuoshima Island, puts its own spin on the concept by offering herbal teas to get you fully relaxed at bedtime, followed by organic bread for breakfast.
Single-person accommodation consists of two no-frills options, both equipped with hangers, night light and shelf, and curtained-off for privacy. ‘Standard style’ features a larger mattress and is designed for deeply immersed reading and quality of sleep. ‘Bookshelf style’ sleeping quarters, on the other hand, are positioned right up close to Book Tea Bed’s library of around 2,000 titles (including travel guides and other English-language books): from your bed, you can easily grab a handful of books to flip through as you doze off.
Photobook lovers have a new must-see Tokyo destination, with the opening of this concept store from internationally respected, Kamakura-based independent publisher Super Labo. This stylishly spartan, gallery-like space, located in the traditional publishing stronghold of Kanda-Jinbocho, naturally places a strong emphasis on Super Labo’s own editions, which generally come in instantly collectible small print runs and present the work of foremost photographers including Bruce Gilden, Daido Moriyama, Joel Meyerowitz, Shomei Tomatsu and many others. Alongside the books you’ll find original prints and Super Labo t-shirts and tote bags (certain items are exclusive to this store), and the shop plans to host regular events including book signings.
Look around any Tokyo train and you’ll see that the vast majority of locals (well, those still reading printed books) conceal their choice of reading matter via a wrap-around book jackets. Many Japanese simply opt for the no-frills paper book covers offered free-of-charge at booksellers, but more image-conscious readers make a style statement with an upscale version, often made of leather and sometimes artisan-crafted.
Jinbocho Ichinoichi, a ‘zakka’ lifestyle shop inside the Sanseido bookstore in Kanda-Jinbocho, has you covered with a range of stylish options, encompassing printed fabric and handsome real leather versions, as well as more unusual fabrications such as the tatami used in traditional Japanese floor mats.
Ginza’s Bar Zikkai brings a playfulness to the district’s longstanding association with the literary world. Hidden two floors below street level, the interior is themed to resemble the private library-equipped drawing room of a well-read European eccentric, who is clearly a man of means. Dimly lit and with an air of gothic-baroque decadence, Zikkai has one wall lined entirely with bookshelves housing an eclectic collection of tomes ranging from novels and art books right through to titles on magic and the occult.
Most books are in Japanese, but in any case the real attraction here is a menu featuring food and drink imaginatively tailored to convey different writers and their masterpieces: a vodka-based cocktail conjures up the flavour of much-loved poet-author Kenji Miyazawa, while a dainty miniature tea set (3pm-6pm ‘cafe time’ only) has been created for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ lovers.
This is Tokyo’s last remaining shop specialising in used English-language books, opened in a location between Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree by the UK-born former owner of Ikebukuro’s much-loved but now closed Caravan Books, Nick Ward. A nondescript facade (look out for hand-written signboards in English) gives way to a more promising interior that might be described as the quintessential secondhand bookshop, replete with the nostalgic smell of slowly ageing pages. Adding to this charm, the premises is said to be haunted.
An extensive inventory runs the gamut of genres from classical literature through to graphic novels and children’s picture books, and the shop will also buy your unwanted English-language titles (provided they are realistically re-sellable). Infinity also doubles as an event space with beer on tap, with Ward drawing upon past experience as a Tokyo bar owner to host live music, poetry readings, quiz nights and more (keep updated via the shop’s Facebook page).
This combined concept bookstore and cafe-bar, all gently pared-down minimalism and studious yet relaxed atmosphere, makes for a pleasingly stark contrast with the din and clamour of its surrounds in Shibuya’s Dogenzaka neighbourhood. Books stocked tend towards scholarly and business-focused titles, and are in Japanese language, but Book Lab Tokyo nonetheless makes a great spot for non-Japanese speakers/readers to get some visual inspiration from some of the image-packed travel magazines also carried, while sitting down enjoying hand-drip coffee or, in the evening, craft beer and wine. Book Lab Tokyo can also serve as an impromptu workspace for digital nomads (devices can be recharged here, and there’s free wi-fi), and is open from 7am for early risers.
Japan’s mini-boom of ‘book-lovers’ hotels’ goes large scale with Hakone Honbako (meaning ‘Hakone bookcase’), a boutique-style accommodation themed around the joy of discovering new reads. The rooms are kitted out with bookshelves containing an eclectic selection of titles, drawn from Hakone Honbako’s collection of around 12,000 books. The rest of these tomes are spread out across a space that feels like the most luxurious library imaginable, replete with classic mid-century modern furnishings and huge picture windows looking out over the surrounding mountains. All books are available to purchase, and though most are Japanese-language, a selection of art and photography books transcends any language barriers.
As with many of the town’s more traditional hotels and ryokan (inns), Hakone Honbako is a self-contained resort also housing a restaurant (a suitably upscale affair specialising in organic Italian dishes) and its own onsen baths including the outdoor rotenburo. There’s also a zakka lifestyle shop, café and coworking space, with selected facilities open to daytime visitors as well as staying guests.
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