From national chain stores to local bookshops, used book stores, and book cafes, Kyoto is clearly a book capital. You don’t have to go very far to find a place to peruse a few (or more) tomes.
What most surprised me was the prevalence of independent book cafes. These are not your Borders or Barnes and Nobles doubling up with Starbucks and Seattle’s Best. The books are carefully chosen to reflect a certain sensibility. The books are there for you to read while you enjoy your coffee or tea (or even a meal).
The local bookshops also pride themselves on being unique, and that they are. Every bookshop is like a new mini world, and I love exploring them. One that especially caught my fancy is Keibunsha (恵文社) in Ichijouji. Most of its space is dedicated to books (mainly new, some used), but it also includes a gallery and shop that feature other alluring items.
Perhaps the most exciting thing was the selection of “literary objects” (to borrow a term by Chin Music Press). These books exist somewhere in between the world of book art and the sphere of mass publication. Thoughtfully designed with the viewer’s (reader’s) experience in mind, they stand apart from standard publications but yet have to cross that line into art.
There is no lack of used book stores in Kyoto. Pretty much every neighborhood has one. There’s one just a few blocks from where I’m staying, and I was very excited to find one of the original publications by Yumeji Takehisa, a famous (at least in Japan) artist and designer. Yumeji’s (he is often referred to by given name only) designs and illustrations have graced a multitude of works by others, but this particular book is a collection of children’s stories written and illustrated by him.
And if visiting used book stores whets your appetite for more, there’s even a used book festival held every summer at Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社), a world cultural heritage site. Organized by the Kyoto Kosho Kenkyukai (京都古書研究会), it is one of three such festivals held every year (the spring and fall ones are held at other venues).
And although it has always been so, it wasn’t until this trip that I truly appreciated the breadth of guidebooks that Japan has to offer. There is a guidebook for possibly every interest, especially for major tourist spots like Kyoto. Cafes in Kyoto, sweets in Kyoto, shrines and temples in Kyoto, art in Kyoto, Kyoto by night, Kyoto by foot, Kyoto by bicycle — the list goes on and on. In fact, if you are absolutely crazy about books and bookstores, there’s a guidebook on that as well (I was sorely tempted, but I didn’t buy it).
I bought two Kyoto guidebooks, and I thought that any more than that would be borderline ridiculous. One is a guide to the Eizan Line and all of its stops and what each neighborhood has to offer. I picked this one up because I’m staying on the Eizan Line. The other is a guidebook to cultural and art places in Kyoto with not only pictures and descriptions but also detailed maps pinpointing the exact locations. Extremely handy.
So my suggestion to travelers to Japan, especially if you can read Japanese, is to visit a bookshop after you have arrived at your destination. Google can get you pretty far if you already know what you’re looking for, but in guidebooks there are unexpected gems waiting to be discovered. That’s how I found myself in this forest of mushroom libraries!
The mushroom libraries are part of the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.