10 Great Things to Do in Jimbocho
When the Meiji Restoration began, universities were one of the top priorities for Japan. Schools institutions mushroomed in the area known today as Jimbocho. As new ideas and technologies flooded into Japan, so too came the rush of bookshops that catered to the students and university staff.
Today, Jimbocho is the go-to place for both 100-yen quick flicks and 100,000 yen collectibles. Just as importantly, the area hosts many affordable curry shops and noodle joints catering to hungry students and debating academics. Give yourself a day to browse through one of Tokyo's most literary and cultural districts.
1. Smell the Books!
Books everywhere in Jimbocho, especially on the street! -- Photo by Athena Lam
Jimbocho is like all of Bloomsbury and London's second-hand bookstores packed into one central corner of Tokyo—right at the footsteps of the Imperial Palace. This square mile has Japan's highest concentration of bookstores that include some shops with over 200-years of history. Some remain small hole-in-the-walls, while others have impressive modern facades. Since their founding, many of these bookstores have become publishers and celebrated national chains. Browse through the 100-yen paperbacks and rare collectibles that go into auctions. Jimbocho has it all.
Kitazawa Shoten's English academic books -- Photo by Athena Lam
Start at Kitazawa Shoten, which was established in 1902 and has a classically European-influenced interior. The entire second floor is dedicated to English and foreign books that include rare prints and academic textbooks on topics ranging from photography and philosophy to East Asian history. German and Spanish books can also be found in this area. The first floor is dedicated mostly to Japanese kids' books with and English picture book corner.
Also check out Tamura Shoten, which opened in 1904 and specialises in French and German literature from the 16-20th century. English books are on the second floor. With nearly 200 independent bookshops in this square kilometre, Jimbocho's establishments can afford to specialise in topics that cater to every niche.
2. Check Out the Antiques
Old collectible scrolls in Isseido's second floor -- Photo by Athena Lam
The businesses have a wide range of specialities. Some specialise in medicine, others in German, still others in kids' books. Whether you are looking for your beloved childhood manga, a 100-yen pocket paperback as a souvenir, or an antique, you'll find it here.
Isseido Shoten has not only survived a century, it’s one of Jimbocho’s surviving landmarks after World War II, where American fire raids burned most of Tokyo to the ground. The austere standalone building was completed in 1931 and designed by RC5. The first floor has gorgeous collectible prints from the Meiji and Edo period in the glass cases, and the upstairs section has English rare and academic books worth checking out.
3. Listen in on a Lecture
Meiji University lecture -- Photo from Flickr cc Hajime NAKANO
Despite the upheavals of the 21st century, Jimbocho has stood steadfast as a centre of scholarly learning. The bookshops mushroomed to serve the various academic institutions in the surrounding Kanda area. Meiji University opened in 1881, Tokyo Medical and Dental University began training professionals in 1928 and the area has several famous high schools. Check out their campuses that blend into the surrounding low-rise buildings.
4. Take a Student Lunch (Soba or Curry)
Yamituki Curry House in Jimbocho -- Photo from Flickr cc Guilhem Vellut
What is a university district if not its eateries? No-nonsense restaurants catering to poor students are where the real action lie. Here, young students will debate hotly about their latest readings, sit for hours doing homework, and, of course, enjoy a soul-comforting bowl of good old udon.
5. Study in a Cafe
Tokyodo has unlimited coffee refills -- Photo by Athena Lam
Toyodo began in 1924 as a second-hand textbook shop just like Jimbocho's other stores. What sets it apart now is the modern design that has adapted to the times in contrast to many small establishments still around. The first floor has lifestyle magazines, and the upper floors have more academic topics—such as religious and foreign books. However, the real reason this place is a popular hangout spot is because the Paper Press Cafe has free WiFi and unlimited coffee for ¥180.
Bondi Books is another popular bookshop among expats since it has an extensive collection of photography books and wide English selection.
6. Fill Your Soul with a Tune
Guitars galore in Ochanomizu's music shops -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
After filling your mind for the day, give the evening to your heart. From bookish Jimbocho, head to neighbouring Ochanomizu to check out the bewildering array of instruments at your fingertips. Test out a guitar model you've been eyeing or listen in on an artist picking out a tune on potential buys. You can also settle in for some local live jazz at Naru.
7. Check out the Architectural Relics and Galleries
Glitch Coffee in Jimbocho -- Photo by Athena Lam
Jimbocho's book peddlers and publishers have been at the centre of social movements, cultural debates and a devastating fire or two. Still, a handful of cultural relics from the early days have remained through wind and fire.
Yaguchi Shoten'sstructure was built in 1928 and its diluted coffee-colour facade has remained unchanged since Japan's first modernisation.
In contrast, the Komiyama Shoten, established in 1939, is inside a post 50s building. Now, the shop is best known as a multi-story homage to photography, art and philosophy books, with a free art gallery on its 4th to 6th floor.
8. Try Some Indie Local Coffee
Glitch Coffee in Jimbocho -- Photo by Athena Lam
Jimbocho isn't just a 'student ghetto'. The area is actually a tapestry of academia and commerce, with universities and bookstores right beside office buildings. This means that budget student eateries are right alongside restaurants with French windows and cafes for business professionals. One independent roaster stands out; Glitch Coffee is a favourite for both businessmen discussing deals and freelancers looking for remote work. Try their weekly selection of roasts, prepared right on the premises.
9. Buy Underground Local Sweets
Japanese sweets stall in Kudanshita Metro Station -- Photo by Athena Lam
One of Tokyo's best kept secrets are the independent stalls at train stations. These daily pop-up shops sell everything from fresh farmer's produce to handmade sweets like mochi and daifuku.
10. Go back in time to the Showa Era, where it all began
Tempura shop in Jimbocho -- Photo by Athena Lam
Finish off your day in this Showa Era neighbourhood by finding a place with the glow of an era gone by. Enter a quiet kissaten, a Japanese-style coffee shop, that is playing radio jazz and order Japanese soul food dishes such as katsudon (pork cutlet rice), omu raisu (omlette rice) and curry. Or, look for the subdued lanterns outside venerable wooden slatted doors leading small specialty restaurants passed down from generation to generation.