Think Tokyo and you think bright lights, busy streets, and technology so ubiquitous that you can buy bananas out of a vending machine. And all those things are there. But even though iPads and e-readers are everywhere, Tokyo is still a great city for readers partial to paper and ink. The city’s students and artists contribute to a thriving free-zine scene, and its bookstores stock everything from vintage American magazines to the latest New York Times bestsellers.
Even in Shibuya, the bustling shopping district largely dedicated to the latest technology and cutting-edge fashion, carefully curated bookstores are nestled between (and sometimes inside) department stores and hip restaurants. To check out some of these favorites, print off the “101 Things To Do in Shibuya” map before you go. Each of the bookstores mentioned here is marked; once you’ve figured out which exit you’ve taken from the Shibuya metro station, you can use it to get anywhere.
Maruzen & Junkudo
If you’re searching for something specific, head to Shibuya’s largest bookshop for your best chance of finding a certain English title. You can also head there if you’re searching for an Hermes bag or Chanel pantsuit; Maruzen & Junkudo is on the top floor of the enormous Tokyo Honten department store. In addition to its million or so Japanese titles, it stocks a wide variety of English magazines and books. If you’re looking for a beach read, Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks are predictably plentiful. But then you can assuage your guilty literary conscience with something from the store’s surprisingly large collection of English-language classics.
Despite a selection of English books that would feel fairly standard in an American bookstore, Maruzen & Junkudo is not the Barnes & Noble of Japan. It’s saved from that comparison by two features: On one end of the store, there are racks full of beautiful greeting cards and stationery, many of them modeled on old Japanese woodcut. And on the opposite wall (separate from the rows labeled “English books”), there’s a stunning collection of art and design titles, many of them in English. Some of these books are works of art in and of themselves, with fanciful photography, unusual typography, and heavy, hand-cut paper that will have bibliophiles sighing as they flip through the pages.
Most of the books at this tiny shop are in Japanese. There is a slim English-language section with used books, which can be fun to browse just for the odd selection of books that have been abandoned by travelers and ex-pats (a recent visit turned up a copy of The Hunger Games and a 1975 book on what it was like to work at The New Yorker).
But the real reason to seek out Flying Books is the deep stacks of decades-old English magazines, for sale for a few dollars each. Just skimming the covers is a lesson in what’s changed and what hasn’t. The aviation magazines from the 1950s probably wouldn’t sell very well today (one teaser reads, “Mayday! How to Get Emergency Help,”), but the education digest from the 1940s (“Will the Computers End Schools?”) and women’s mag from the 50s (“Wild Date!” “Forbidden Love!”) feel pretty current.
Most of the titles in this foodie paradise aren’t in English, but anyone with a cookbook obsession (or a sweet tooth) should stop by anyway. The shelves of this tiny but charming shop are crammed with beautiful books about a dizzying array of cuisines, from Japanese ramen to Mediterranean desserts. If you’re looking to make an English-language purchase, you’ll probably end up with a British cookbook, which could open up a previously undiscovered world of puddings and crumpets. You can get full just looking at the lush food photography on display inside Cook Coop, but if you don’t, there’s a selection of interesting imported drinks and snacks near the checkout counter.
Only Free Paper
The name is slightly misleading - you’ll have to drop a few yuan if you want one of the funky postcards or some of the exquisite stationery designed by local artists. But the tables in the center of this store are covered with carefully-tended stacks of self-published magazines produced by Japanese writers, artists, and photographers. And they’re totally free. On any given day, there will be hundreds of different publications available. On a recent visit, there were titles dedicated to cars, food, anime, skateboarding, and photographs of New York City. Some of the magazines are as slick as People; others are handmade by high school girls. And if you find a favorite, you can comb through back issues in the store’s archive of Japan’s free zines. Several of the titles feature articles in both English and Japanese, but even the Japanese-only publications are worth taking home and flipping through for the cool photography, graphic design, and snapshots of Japanese street fashion.
Only Free Paper’s location feels odd; it’s in a mall-like building filled largely with clothing and jewelry stores. But step into the Parco Part 1 building and ask at the information desk (where “I speak a little English” means “I speak flawless English”), and they’ll point you toward the appropriate elevators.