12 Fantastic Tokyo Bookstores

Tokyo isn't lacking in bookstores friendly to foreign readers. But where to find them? Read on to find out.

Photo Credit: Toomore Chiang via Flickr cc

Newcomers to Japan are often struck by the nation’s charmingly anachronistic penchant for books. Granted, books are hardly dying out anywhere in the world (despite techno-apocalyptic predictions in some quarters), but Japan seems particularly insatiable in its appetite for the written word. Accordingly, the country is not lacking in bookstores.

Tokyo, unsurprisingly, is especially well-equipped. Happily, this also includes bookstores catering to foreign readers, predominantly, it must be said, English readers. However, in a city so vast you’re still going to need a push in the right direction when it comes to discovering these places. What you’ll find below is a guide to 12 of Tokyo’s very best foreigner-friendly bookstores, which should do the trick.

1. Tsutaya Books

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If you’re after the cloying stench of must or books that haven’t seen the light of day in decades, avoid Tsutaya Books at all costs. As the centrepiece of Daikanyama T-Site, the store is the flagship for Tsutaya’s upmarket rebrand: a multipurpose glass and steel cathedral of leisure and relaxation. The books, it must be said, take a backseat. Indeed, it’d be easy to while away a day here without so much as reading a blurb.

With three cafes (including a much lauded Starbucks), a restaurant, sections dedicated to DVDs and music, as well as a menagerie of high-end stores selling everything from fountain pens to bicycles, T-Site is an ambitious undertaking and one that has proven extremely popular since opening for business in 2012. T-Site slots into its salubrious Daikanyama surroundings like a jigsaw piece, sucking people in with its alluring sense of openness, light and calm. Rather than a store, Tsutaya lies somewhere between a living room and a museum—lounging on the designer sofas or gawping at a particularly expensive foreign fashion magazine are perhaps just as key to its appeal as buying a couple of paperbacks.

Yet, books there are. A lot of them, in fact. Pulpy holiday thrillers or well-thumbed classics are in short supply though—all books here are new, glistening and, inevitably, expensive. However, there is a lot of quality titles on the shelves. Although most are in Japanese, there’s still plenty of space given over to foreign (mostly English) books, on subjects from philosophy to zoology.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sun 07:00 - 02:00
Website: Tsutaya Books
Address: Daikanyama T site, 17-5 Sarugakucho, Tokyo
Access: Daikanyama Station 
Phone Number: 03-3770-2525

2. Kitazawa Bookstore

If you thought all Tokyo bookstores would smell of café au lait and require sunglasses in the summer, you were sadly mistaken. Let us re-enter the real world with Kitazawa Bookstore—our first taste of Jimbocho and one of Tokyo’s finest bookstores to cater to those with tastes slightly more exacting than Steve Jobs hagiographies or Harry Potter spinoffs. Apologies if that sounds slightly imperious but Kitazawa Bookstore’s stock of (mostly) non-fiction, (mostly) academic books certainly appeals to a relatively narrow audience.

If you’re a part of this audience, congratulations, you’re in for a real treat. Kitazawa Bookstore deals mostly in English language books (there are also some German and French titles to be found), the vast majority of which are second hand but kept in very good condition. The store itself can be found on the second-floor of a building on one of Jimbocho’s main streets, a building with an unmistakable (if slightly timid) faux-classical entrance. Inside, the books are stacked in looming floor to ceiling bookcases and tactically piled up in the aisles, making browsing a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

As for the books themselves, there’s a definite bent towards European philosophy and world history, though there are titles on all manner of subjects, esoteric and general alike. On our last visit, writers such as Derrida, Althusser and Benjamin, as well as subjects like the Spanish Civil War seemed to stand out as being particularly well represented. Most of the books are hardback (towards the front of the store there are more paperback titles) and come with the requisite price tag, yet all prices are reasonable considering their quality and rarity in Tokyo.

Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 11:00 - 18:30, Sat 12:00 - 17:30 (Closed Sun)
Website: Kitazawa Bookstore
Address: 2-5 Kanda Jimbocho, Tokyo
Access: Jimbocho Station 
Phone Number: 03-3263-0011

3. Cow Books, Nakameguro

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Nakameguro is one of Tokyo’s most enviable postcodes: a bourgeois neighbourhood awash with intimidatingly expensive boutiques, ultra-hip bars and a highly international feel. Although within walking distance of frenzied Shibuya, Nakameguro is far more serene, especially around the canal that runs parallel with the main road. This is where you’ll find Cow Books.

Everything about this place is ferociously, unapologetically cool. The interior is small, with the books stacked on shelves around the perimeter and a long wooden reading table in the center. The lighting is dark and the atmosphere comfortably subdued, inviting contemplation over impulse buying. This may be a good thing given the steep prices, though I doubt decisive. Cow Books is pretty eclectic, though there’s certainly a guiding principle at work behind the scenes. Expect a lot of 1960s countercultural stuff, kitschy sci-fi, modernist design books, vintage magazines, essentially a lot of titles you won’t find elsewhere. Though Cow Books doesn’t specifically market itself as a foreign bookstore, there are a good amount of foreign titles (just under half perhaps) to pick through, most sourced on frequent buying trips to Europe and the US.

The Nakameguro store has proven such a hit that there’s now a second Cow Books in Aoyama, very close to Omotesando Station. For the location and general atmosphere, however, the original remains unbeaten.

Opening Hours: Tue-Sun 12:00 - 20:00 (Closed Mon)
Website: Cow Books
Address: 1-14-11 Aobadai, Nakameguro, Tokyo
Access: Nakameguro Station 
Phone Number: 03-5459-1747

4. Kinokuniya Books, Shinjuku

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Kinokuniya is Japan’s largest chain of book retailers with 80 stores up and down the country as well as global offshoots in cities from Singapore to New York. Accordingly, it’s heavenly for bibliophiles of all stripes.

Kinokuniya founded its first store in Shinjuku (there are now two branches in Shinjuku) and it’s this store that remains the most impressive. Spread over eight prodigious floors right on Shinjuku-dori (one of Shinjuku’s principal arteries), it’d take a whole lot of stamina to browse everything in a single visit. Luckily, you may not need to, as most of Kinokuniya’s stock is in Japanese. For the foreign language titles—not only English but a whole lot of German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Korean, too—the store on the south side of Shinjuku Station is the better equipped. There, brand new bestseller and classic novels are the mainstay, though there is also a decent amount of language-learning textbooks, travel guides and children’s books as well.

Other than books, Kinokuniya also deals in manga, comics, stationery, CDs and DVDs among other items. The store is now a venerable institution that is worth visiting even if you don’t intend to buy anything, where Japan’s unwavering taste for (some would say) anachronistic pastimes can be felt in full force.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sun 10:00 - 21:00
Website: Kinokuniya Books
Address: 3-17-7 Shinjuku, Tokyo
Access: Shinjuku Station
Phone Number: 03-3354-0131

5. Junkudo Ikebukuro

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Monolithic bookstores are one of Tokyo’s specialities, something made clear once again at Junkudo in Ikebukuro, a towering 10-story monster given over entirely to books.

Junkudo’s whole ninth floor is dedicated to foreign books, the majority of which are in English. Charitable given that, when we’ve visited at least, this floor has been visibly quieter than the others. Obviously, this is by no means a bad thing. In fact, this, combined with the sheer quantity of books on offer gives Junkudo an edge on much of the competition.

The books are an even split between fiction and non-fiction, new and used. There’s a particularly good collection of Penguin modern classics, a wide range of popular science and general history titles, as well as a good stock of language-learning and children’s books.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sun 10:00 - 23:00
Website: Junkudo
Address: 2-15-5 Minamiikebukuro, Tokyo
Access: Ikebukuro Station
Phone Number: 03-5956-6111

6. The Isseido Booksellers

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The Isseido Booksellers is a family-run business with over a century of history behind it. It can be found in Jimbocho, an area otherwise known as Tokyo Book Town. Isseido, in fact, is a Jimbocho veteran and the first to return to business in the wake of the Pacific War. Since the beginning, this place has taken seriously its role as a refuge and incubator for Tokyo’s intellectually curious.

On the second floor you’ll find the foreign language books, most of which are in English. The books are mostly obscure titles on subjects such as fine art, ancient Greece and Rome, Eastern mysticism, Buddhism and exploration, though whatever your niche you’re bound to find something of interest. Many of the books are antique or extremely rare and downstairs you’ll find a fascinating collection of manuscripts and woodblock prints. It’s clear that the owners not only sell the books but take a great interest in them personally as things to be cherished. Still, everyone needs to eat, so prepare yourself for some pretty steep prices.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 10:00 - 18:30 (Closed Sun)
Website: The Issedido Booksellers
Address: 1-7 Kanda Jimbocho, Tokyo
Access: Jimbocho Station
Phone Number: 03-3292-0071

7. Ogawa Tosho Ltd

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Ogawa Tosho Ltd is anther Jimbocho stalwart that can be found just down the road from Isseido. Ogawa Tosho has a history dating back to 1930, something evident upon entering this grotto of leather-bound folios and vintage editions.

Ogawa Toshu focusses its gaze on British and American literature, predominantly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but there are also a number of older titles to be found from luminaries the like of Shakespeare, Milton and Defoe. The store also houses an inimitable collection of foreign works on Japan, Asia and philology, making this a great destination for those wanting to deepen their understanding of the country or its language. Inevitably given their age, most of the stock is used but largely seems to be in pristine condition all the same. Prices, though not cheap by any measure, are fair considering the quality to be found here.

On top of the books, Ogawa Toshu also stocks a fine array of new and classic editions of foreign magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Time.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 10:00 - 18:30 (Closed Sun)
Website: Ogawa Tosho Ltd
Address: 2-7 Kanda Jimbocho, Tokyo
Access: Jimbocho Station
Phone Number: 03262-0908

8. Infinity Books

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Infinity Books is slightly out of the way, particularly if you’ve set up camp in the west of the city. The store, however, is well worth seeking out—especially if you’ve a predilection for the twin pleasures of books and beer. That’s right, British owner-cum-landlord Nick Ward has done the unthinkable and combined a bookstore with a bar: to wonderful effect.

Though small, Infinity Books crams in a lot of stock. The majority of it is used and there’s a pretty even split between fiction and non-fiction titles. Those who value order may be slightly perturbed by the bordering on non-existent system of organisation, though it’s charming in its own ramshackle way. The lack of any real specialisation means you’re unlikely to find anything too out of the ordinary at Infinity Books, yet, everything has clearly earned its spot on the limited shelf space. For an advanced preview of what’s in store (or if you really can’t be bothered to head to Azumbashi), the store also operates as an online retailer so its whole catalogue can be found on the website.

In the back of the store you’ll find the bar. With room to sit, chat, read and Yebisu on tap, it’s a great little space which, surprisingly, feels fully congruous with the setting. Infinity Books also hosts regular events in store, mostly of a musical nature and open to all. The store even has its own house band, The Nicks, whose covers of 1960s and 70s pop classics are not to be missed. A full schedule of upcoming events can be found on the website.

Opening Hours: Tue-Sun 11:0 - 23:00 (Closed Mon)
Website: Infinity Books
Address: 1-2-4 Azumabashi, Tokyo
Access: Honjo-Azumabashi Station
Phone Number: 080-3412-2564

9. Maruzen Marunouchi Main Store

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Staying on the east side of the city, next up is Maruzen Marunouchi. Just a few minutes walk from Tokyo Station, Maruzen Maunouchi is convenient from pretty much anywhere in central Tokyo, though convenience isn’t all it has to offer: the store—part of a chain with a presence across Japan—is another mammoth book megastore famed for unrivalled variety and, among the expat community at least, for its great selection of foreign titles.

As may have become clear by now, Tokyo bookstores more often than not deal in used books when it comes to foreign titles. Not here. Maruzen is the best place in the city to pick up brand-new books, those dominating the bestseller lists, new editions of classic titles, translated manga, magazines, children’s books, travel guides, textbooks, even newspapers. Prices, too, are very reasonable even when compared to online retailers like Amazon.

Find the foreign language books (English mostly but there are other languages too) on the top floor, along with a pleasant little cafe and a small exhibition space which is always worth a look in. Don’t skip the ground floor either. There, Maruzen sells original stationary, quirky Tokyo souvenirs and postcards among other assorted knicknacks—the sort of stuff that always goes down well as gifts, essentially.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sun 09:00 - 21:00
Website: Maruzen Marunouchi
Address: 1-6-4 Marunouchi Oazo,Yokyo
Access: Tokyo Station
Phone Number: 03-5288-8881

10. Irregular Rhythm Asylum

Irregular Rhythm Asylum

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The first thing to say about the Irregular Rhythm Asylum (IRA) is that it doesn’t self-identify as a bookstore. Rightly so, as it’s much more than that alone. Located in Shinjuku, IRA exists as an ‘infoshop’ for Tokyo’s socialists, anarchists, artists and the merely curious—a place for the sharing of ideas and organising for change. Events are held here on a regular basis (check the website) but the doors are always open during the day if you’d like to just pop in for a look around (well, not always, be sure to check the opening hours).

IRA is a pretty small space but there’s a lot crammed in there and a lot of stuff for sale. Zines, CDs, printed t-shirts and tote bags, pins and badges, posters and, crucially, books. There are two large bookcases packed with foreign books (English and Spanish mainly) that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. A lot of the stock is from small and independent publishers detailing various contemporary struggles or movements, though there’s also classic works of political philosophy from the likes of Emma Goldman, Bakunin and Chomsky (no leftist bookstore would dare leave Chomsky out), as well as works of history, sociology and memoir. The selection isn’t huge but it has been well chosen and, as said, IRA is the only place in Tokyo where you’ll find books such as these.

Opening Hours: 13:00 - 20:00 (Closed Mon and Wed)
Website: Irregular Rhythm Asylum
Address: 1-30-12 Shinjuku, Tokyo
Access: Shinjuku Station
Phone Number: 03-3352-6916

11. Yaesu Book Center

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Even when weighed down with books, the walk from Maruzen to our next entry, the Yaesu Book Center, is a breeze. Head to the former for your new books, Yaesu for some second-hand gems, of which there are plenty to choose from.

Make the ascension to the top floor for the foreign books and a great view over the city to boot. The non-fiction section is renowned here, with a small forest’s worth of politics, history, philosophy, economics and business titles. Those with a mind for the humanities are thus well catered for and are bound to find something of interest. Yaesu has more up its sleeve, however. The store also stocks a good range of classic and contemporary literature, language textbooks, phrasebooks, dictionaries, children’s books, travel guides and international magazines. No matter what you’re after, therefore, there’s a good chance you’ll leave satisfied.

Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 10:00 - 21:00, Sat-Sun 10:00 - 20:00
Website: Yaesu Book Center
Address: 2-5-1 Yaesu, Tokyo
Access: Tokyo Station 
Phone Number: 03-3281-1811

12. Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers

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Our last entry will be perhaps our least rewarding for those looking for something specific, a huge haul of books or—and go with us here—something they can actually read. That’s right, Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers—an impeccably hip bookstore slash publishers—really doesn’t sell too many foreign language books at all. There are a few, mixed in with the Japanese titles, but no one is pretending this is their forte.

This is slightly beside the point, however, as this store is all about giving its customers something unique and beautiful, something they won’t find elsewhere. The dazzlingly white interior is the perfect venue for this mission, a blank canvas on which the owners can present their carefully selected wares. The books are arranged thematically regardless of type, meaning you’ll find manga and art books next to novels and cookbooks, most of which come from independent publishers or are designed and produced in-house. There is also a lot of glossy, impressively expensive fashion, art and culture magazines, as well as an assortment of artisan jewellery, clothing and homeware. Being open until midnight most nights, it also makes for a cultured alternative to the bar.

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 12:00 - 00:00, Sun 12:00 - 22:00
Website: Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers
Address: 17-3 Kamiyamacho, Tokyo
Access: Shibuya Station 
Phone Number: 03-5465-0588
Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.

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