Sarashobou: Serious Books in Tokyo
If you are talking about books in Tokyo, then surely you have to talk about Jinbocho and Book Town. From small beginnings in the early twentieth century Book Town has grown into an area filled with 170 book stores and filled with every book imaginable. Need a rare book on Russian literature? You can get it there. The whole set of Black Jack ? Definitely. A book on Edo period anatomy? No problem. Maps of Japan dating from the Kamakura period? They have those. A complete set of the One Piece comics? It’ll be there, somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you need a common or rare book, someone in Book Town has it or they will be able to get it for you. It is that type of place. Very cool in my opinion.
And very luckily for me, I got invited to talk with an owner of one of the shops there recently, Yasuo Hatsugai. He runs Sarashobou and it is a truly amazing shop. It is a wonderful place to walk into. A wonderful place, filled with books that have that old book smell, which book-lovers will certainly appreciate along with his books. Granted, most of the books are in Japanese but don’t let that stop you from going there as they are very, very special books.
Yasuo has been in business for over fifty years and his books range in topics from fortified towns, castles and provincial maps of the Edo period through to biographies, Japanese history, Ainu, archeology, folklore and the list goes on and on. He even has books copies of bibles that were imported to Japan from Europe in the sixteenth century. There are also books that were published by foreign writers living in nineteenth-century Japan, such as B. H. Chamberlain and Jules Adam, who sold them to travelers that took them back to their home countries and then in some cases those same books travelled back to Japan to be parts of collections here. That is quite incredible.
These books are the books that attract the attention of private collectors and universities. They come to buy Kamakura period maps worth 10 million yen, or original books written by Hokusai - the rarest of rare books that have huge price tags which he keeps on the second floor of his building. It probably explains why he never has many customers in the shop at one time. To get three customers in the shop on any day would make it a busy day he joked. And if Yasuo doesn’t have it, he can find it for you. You might need to wait up to ten years in some cases, but he will be able to get it.
As we spoke one thing that struck me as extremely interesting is that some of the older books are just copies of copies. Books being made of paper get stained, burnt, lost etc, so a long time ago people had copies made of them to make sure they were always around. In those days long ago there was a real cottage industry where people had their little businesses of copying books. It must have been a strain on the eyes I think, but that was one of the businesses back in the day. Luckily they existed, else we would have those books today.
I also learned why it is hard to be successful in the book business. He spoke of an informal apprenticeship period, which people need to serve. You have to remember that many of these books are extremely old, hundreds and hundreds of years old and back in those times the use of kanji (Chinese letters) in Japan was far more extensive than it is today as well as many place names being different. Therefore, there is a lot of knowledge which must be gained and that only comes after many years of working with the books and course, reading them. I don’t think it would be an easy process.
If you want to have a look at his books it is entirely possible. All you need to do is go to his store and ask! The ground floor is always open to the public, however if you want to have a look at his rare books on the second floor then you need one of the staff available to guide you. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to take the books out of the cases but you will at least be able to see some parts of them.
If you want to see the website for Yasuo’s shop, Sarabosho, click this link here. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but don’t let that deter you. At his shop everyone is very, very welcome.
How to get to Sarashobou
Get to Jinbochou station (Hanzomon, Mita and Toei Shinjuku lines) and leave via exit 5. From there, it is just a few minutes walk. Here is a map to help you:
Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm. It is closed on Sundays and public holidays.