Tokyos independent book shops

Five of the city’s most innovative booksellers

Tokyo’s independent book shops

Shibuya Publishing Booksellers

Covering everything from architecture to ramen noodles, Japanese books and magazines explore the high and the low in a visually engaging fashion— that is in itself part of the culture. Bookstores abound (and can be found at most Tokyo train stations), while a visit to any convenience store offers proof of the generally healthy appetite for the printed word. Collectors, art book lovers, and fans of the limited edition and the radically obscure, however, have a different set of haunts. From the historic to the avant-garde, iconic to upstart, Tokyo’s independent bookstores appeal to the city’s diverse literary tribes.

Cow Books

This inviting cubby hole along the Meguro River specializes in out of print books mostly from the 60s and 70s, and with a radical bent. The 2000+ collection includes prize rarities (a 50th anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ currently on display) and recent publications from the founder himself, Yataro Matsuura. Matsuura (who runs Cow Books with Setsumasa Kobayashi) is an influential contributor to the local literary scene, moonlighting as editor-in-chief of the long-running magazine Kurashi no Techo (‘Life Notebook’). The interior of Cow Books is as eclectic as it is inviting, with a central reading table flanked by wooden stools, library-style metal shelves lining the walls, and a pistachio-coloured floor decorated with friendly, if not worn, rugs. There is also an LED ticker lining the perimeter, whose bright red bulbs spell out ‘We Live in Books’ (or something to that effect as it changes regularly). Foreign guests are offered a free treat as a ‘welcome to Japan’ gesture; inquire at the counter. Hint: fresh-brewed coffee is also served on the premise, which can be enjoyed on the bench outside by the river.

Address: 1-14-11 Aobadai, Meguro, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)5459 1747
Open: Tue-Sun 1pm-9pm, closed Mon

Aoyama Branch (Full details & map)  

Shibuya Publishing Booksellers

Freelance editor and writer Seita Fukui opened this publishing-house-meets-bookshop in January of 2008. The décor (done by the award-winning NAP Architects) seems to take inspiration from Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’ Like the café in the story, SPBS is open late— until midnight daily —to give book lovers a refuge after business hours. Meanwhile the simple, bright design puts the emphasis on the books themselves. Culture (be it Japanese, international and often pop) is the focus of the selection. Items are arranged by decade, from the 40s to the present, encouraging customers to browse by era or movement rather than by author. Manga sit side by side with modern design tomes and the centre island features a number of current independent magazines, including the in-house quarterly Rocks. SPBS is located in a homelier, grown-up area of Shibuya, the Kamiyamacho neighbourhood, punctuated by cosy restaurants and late-night spots.

Address: 17-3 Kamiyamacho, Shibuya, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)5465 0577
Open: Mon-Fri 12pm-12midnight, Sat, Sun & nat. holidays-12midnight


Another recent addition to the Tokyo literary landscape, Utrecht offers perhaps the most tactile of all independent bookshop selections. With glossy or porous paper, smooth or raw edges, staple bound or done up with string, the small edition publications on display here appeal to those who appreciate the aesthetic quality of the printed object as much as the content. The humble ‘zine is undergoing a renaissance of sorts in Tokyo at the moment and has Utrecht, in part, to thank. With a well-edited collection of both domestic and international artsy and homespun publications, Utrecht also curates the book selection at choice stores like fashion boutique Loveless. Located in a suite of rooms on the second floor of a surprisingly (when compared to its neighbour Prada) down-and-out office building in Aoyama, the shop has a makeshift feel. Book shelves fold out of the walls like doors and an assemblage of plywood makes one corner of the room into a café. The comparatively spacious balcony, under a canopy of ginko trees, has extra seating, as well as heat lamps for winter. Meanwhile the in-house gallery space, Now Idea, features exhibitions and events that run into the evening hours.

Address: 2F Palace Miyuki, 5-3-8 Minami Aoyama, Minato, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)6427 4041
Open: Tue-Sat 12noon-8pm, closed Sun-Mon (closed Tue if Mon is a nat. holiday)

On Sundays

Only in rare cases does a museum shop become as much an institution as the museum itself. The MoMA Store comes to mind, and so does On Sundays, the art book store attached to the Watarium contemporary art museum. The two-floor bookstore is venerated for its thorough collection of books on the contemporary Japanese art scene (including a number in English) as well as iconic and obscure publications from abroad. Descending down the grand spiral staircase from the first floor into the basement feels not unlike entering a catacomb or wine cellar. To be sure, the books are enshrined here with a similar sense of reverence. For fetishists of the written word, there is a covetable selection of accessories like leather book covers and pen cases. For the casual visitor, On Sundays offers perhaps the city’s best collection of post cards and diaries, art-related and otherwise.

Address: 3-7-6 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo
Telephone: (03)3470 1424
Open: Mon-Sun 11am-8pm, Wed until 9pm

Ohya Shobo

No survey of bookstores in Tokyo would be complete without a nod to the Jimbocho “Book Town,” the historic centre of the city’s publishing industry and an area known for its high concentration of used booksellers. Of the latter, Ohya Shobo is one of the most recognised icons. From the samurai print guarding the entrance to the heady scent of incense inside, this purveyor of Edo era publications offers a thorough time trip. Open since 1882, the shop is currently run by third generation owner Kimio Kouketsu. In addition to the comprehensive collection of fiction, nonfiction, illustrated storybooks and manga from the likes of the master printmaker Hokusai, Ohya Shobo also carries assorted ukiyo-e prints (both originals and more economical reproductions) and maps of the former Edo cityscape. Not everything is a relic: the shop recently produced a full-colour print ‘catalogue’ of the hundred plus monsters and sprites that inhabit Edo literature and folklore. While those looking for more contemporary information, will find Ohya Shobo a good source for maps and flyers pertaining to Book Town.
(Full details & map)

by Rebecca Milner
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


3 comments Add a comment

Hello I am the writer of the book, "An Iranian At Home And Abroad", recently published on and The book is about my experiences in Japan, where I spent about three years working. You couldn't possibly stock a copy of this book im your bookshop, could you? I have no doubt Japanese will find my book interesting. Ben Afflek has recently spoken about playing the part Cyrus Kamrani in my book, after playing in Argo. Kind regards Cyrus Kamrani.

Posted by cyrus kamrani on Mar 18 2013 00:34

Try wandering around Jimbocho – there are lots of shops selling second-hand art books there, so you should be able to find what you're looking for.

Posted by James Hadfield on Jan 22 2013 18:18

Where can I find books about painting screens and fans Edo period? Thank you

Posted by Hélène Teston on Jan 12 2013 00:23

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