Tokyo’s Paper Heart: A Short Guide to Jimbocho

Photos by Sean O’Mara

Walking through Tokyo’s winding streets, packed thoroughfares, and cramped alleys, you’ll find no shortage of second-hand stores. These range from Book Off (and its offshoots Mode Off and Hard Off) that have done well with selling used books, clothes, and electronics, to second-hand game and doujinshi stores in Akihabara, Shibuya’s many used CD and record shops, to Mandarake’s veritable empire of used otaku goods. One small part of Tokyo is the epicenter of used books, like a paper vortex where books that no longer spark joy are sent until they find a new owner.

Nestled in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward is an unglamorous and unassuming part of the city called Jimbocho (sometimes Jinbocho). It’s about 15 minutes by train from Shibuya and has the distinction of being the heart of Tokyo’s used book market. Jimbocho is thoroughly normal at a glance with nothing futuristic about it, and not much particularly antiquated either (except for the contents of a few shops, and a few buildings that survived WWII), but has much to offer bibliophiles and collectors with loads of shops selling new, used, and vintage, books and magazines.

Film writer and historian Donald Richie wrote extensively on how Tokyo is less a city with a single universal identity, and more a series of smaller towns, each with its own function, connected by a webwork of trains and subways. You want entertainment? You go to Shibuya. Religion? Asakusa. If you want books or magazines, old or new, you go to Jimbocho. Jimbocho’s roots in books are tied to the numerous private schools and universities that sprung up in the area after the Meiji Restoration. In time this density of book stores also lead to a density in publisher houses, as Jimbocho is also the home to manga publishing giant Shueisha.

Jimbocho is not strictly an “otaku” hub in the sense that this where you would go for just anime/manga publications old or new (though you can find plenty), but there is so much in the way of vintage books, magazines, counter culture publications, and the paper remnants of the Bubble Era and beyond. Word of warning going forward: many of the shops here close around 6 or 7pm, so better to show up earlier in the day.

Near the subway station, Bunken Rock Side (ブンケン・ロック・サイド), specializes in music and rock-related publications. Visual kei photo books, concert programs, vintage Japanese and western music magazines like KERRANG. If you’re particularly interested in seeing how Japan was consuming western music from the 70s through the 90s, I recommend picking up some old issues of Ongaku Senka (音楽専科). You can see pictorials of David Bowie next to fan art of Fun Boy Three while you wonder about how glam and new wave informed style in anime and manga.

Speaking of manga, during the ’80s Ongaku Senka ran a comedy manga in its pages called 8 Beat Gag by Atsuko Shima. It’s a comedy manga starring the likes of Ultravox, Japan, Roxy Music, and Queen as they get into (potentially copyright infringing) shenanigans. Bunken Rock primarily focuses on music-related publications, but they also have a modest selection of 1980s anime magazines, photo books and a wealth of vintage lifestyle magazines. Those of you interested in Bubble Era style should check out their copies of Takarajima (宝島), which was a sort of subculture and fashion magazine. The 1980s issues are a great little Bubble Era snapshot with photos of Jun Togawa and Garo-style short manga, alongside odd articles like recommended VHS tapes to play at parties. Hot Dog and Popeye are also worth checking out, though they have a slightly more affluent/preppy style. Those magazines are like style guides for Haruki Murakami protagonists.

About a block away from Bunken Rock is Vintage Jimbocho (ヴィンテージ 神保町店), a go-to location for cinephiles. If you collect posters, vintage film magazines, or program books, this store literally had them spilling out onto the street the last time I was there. You can also find a wealth of vintage wrestling magazines, photo books, and an odd assortment of English titles. My strangest finds were the 1986 English translation of Devilman that Dynamic Pro released in the States, and Harry Harrison’s (author of The Stainless Steel Rat) 1977 book, Great Balls of Fire: An Illustrated History of Sex In Science Fiction. Vintage Jimbocho is super densely packed with books and magazines, so you can definitely find anime and manga related publications too, but I strongly recommend this place for anything film related. Check out their Twitter account for updates about new stock coming in.

For the musically inclined, Jimbocho also has a number of record stores peppered throughout. While at Record Sha (レコード社本店 sometimes called Record Sya) I was able to get a 45 of the Japanese ending theme to Mad Max. Record Sha has an impressive selection of CDs, LPs, and 45s of movie soundtracks, rock, blues, city pop, and the like crammed into its storefront. Incidentally, many of these mom & pop record stores will also have decent selections of laserdiscs, which, in their heyday, were often carried in record stores since their boxes are about the same size as your average LP. A lot of these shops will price them like they just want you to get them off their hands. Pick up some tokusatsu films to frame for their great box art, or dazzle your friends by showing them Tenchi Muyo the way it was REALLY meant to be seen. You might as well get On Your Mark on LD since it doesn’t look like Ghibli is gonna budge on Chage & Aska’s pop culture exile any time soon.

For those of you traveling alone or with less scrupulous friends/partners, Jimbocho is also dotted with a number of used/vintage porn magazine and comic stores. Dare you find out just how used these magazines are? Bring home a copy of Lemon People to show your parents, they’ll be so proud of you.

When you get hungry, take a walk over to Soup Deli. It is not a delicatessen, nor does it serve soup. It does, however, serve a pretty tasty gratin curry and has the sort of ambiance that you only get when Japanese establishments try to replicate an American look and feel. Paper Back Cafe also offers up light snacks and coffee in a laid back bookshop setting. The food’s not particularly remarkable, but sometimes you just need a place to sit and have a breather.

Above all else, I encourage to take your time and really savor these shops and what Jimbocho has to offer. When you take the time to appreciate these magazines and books you learn something about what life or fandom was like long ago beyond the broad strokes we’re all familiar with, not to mention many vintage publications are quite cheap. Most of my best finds were from just poring over the shelves in Jimbocho and taking it all in. This is only a small sampling of the many book stores in Jimbocho, so keep your eyes peeled and you just might find that elusive Yuji Kaida artbook or Kishin Shinoyama photo album you always wanted. Your best find might be something you didn’t even know you wanted.

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