Sunday, 27 November 2011

Tokyo Book Universe

When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was drawn like a charged magnet to Tokyo's book district, Jimbocho, before I even really knew where I was. It was very comforting to find it by accident even though I was looking for something else entirely - the best possible homesickness cure.

Book nerd that I am, Jimbocho might be the nearest I'm ever going to get to 'heaven'.  It has the largest concentration of bookshops - both new books and secondhand ones - in the whole of Japan...

It also has its very own weekend-long festival, dedicated to furui hon (old books). Lanterns light up the streets and there are book stalls everywhere, right outside the book shops. My snapshot from the festival doesn't do it justice at all -

Now, I don't have to go back there by accident: I actually work there!

But it isn't only Jimbocho that makes Tokyo's book universe so exciting, its the shops and the libraries, too. At one of the shrines in Kamakura last month, I found one of the most beautiful mini libraries I've ever seen.

On the outside, it was guarded by carved gremlin-dragons

and a succession of scary-looking metal statues of samurai stamping on goblins

but inside, amid some eye-bogglingly fantastic ceiling woodwork, was an ingenious book 'merry-go-round'.

When the windows were open, priceless sacred texts were on display
And when they were shut, it was all the easier to appreciate the fact that the plainer bookshelves around the outside were made of gleaming Japanese cedar (which smells almost as beautiful as it looks), every inch of them filled with MORE books. I had been taken to Kamakura by a non book-loving friend - politeness was only thing that stopped me from staying at this library all day.

At the Edo Tokyo Museum a couple of weeks later, I happened upon a reconstruction of a Tokyo bookshop from the 19th century.

At least the sign said it was a bookshop - there were so many drawings in the window, I would have mistaken it for an art shop.

Then I read the museum notes, which confirmed what it's not difficult to just 'get' from the amazing variety of word/picture creations I've seen in Japan...that, unlike so many other places, illustration simply never stopped being one of the most important parts of mainstream fiction. Childrens books (Akahon) and 'adult' books (19th century Japanese porn) even had colour coded covers - red or black for children's, yellow for something a little more 'colourful'...

Inside the covers of allmost every genre, almost all genres were - and often still are - heavily illustrated. The museum listed a cross-section: Sharebon (witty novelettes), Kokkeibon (humourous books), Dangibon (sermon-style satirical books), Ninjoobon (romances), Yomihon (history and morality books) - some obvious, some I would never have guessed!

So, armed with this new information, I went back to Jimbocho, to the oldest bookshop I could find, and spent a few hours poring over old (illustrated) scrolls and picture books

Then, I went into one of the offices there, and started working on new books, too.

I love Tokyo!

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