Antique Books at Sarashobo in Jinbocho

sarashobo bookstore exterior
The Sarashobo bookstore.

If you are talking about books in Tokyo, then Jinbocho and Book Town need to be in that conversation. From small beginnings in the early twentieth century, the area has grown to about 200 bookstores. They have everything you could want to read. Need something 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? There are those. A complete set of the One Piece comics? It’ll probably be in a box somewhere! It doesn’t matter if you need the common or rare; someone has it, or they will be able to get it for you. It is that type of place.

And luckily for me, I got invited to talk with the owner of one of the shops there, Yasuo Hatsugai. He runs Sarashobou, which is a fantastic store. It has many books with that lovely old bookish smell. Granted, most of his items are in Japanese but don’t let that stop you from going there as they are extraordinary.

Yasuo Hatsugai
Yasuo Hatsugai.

Yasuo has been in business for over fifty years. His books range in topics from fortified towns and castles of the Edo period to Ainu folklore. The list goes on and on. He even has copies of bibles imported to Japan from Europe in the sixteenth century.

Foreign writers living in nineteenth-century Japan published quite a few.  They sold them to travelers who took them back to their home countries.  In some cases, those same books traveled back to Japan to be parts of collections here.  Even their history can be pretty incredible.

These books attract the attention of private collectors and universities. They buy Kamakura period maps worth 10 million yen or original drawings by Hokusai. These are the rarest of rare and have huge price tags. You can see them on the second floor.

It probably explains why he never had many customers in the shop at one time. To get three customers in the shop 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 get it.

As we spoke, one thing struck me as interesting. Some of the older books were copies of copies. Books, being made of paper, get stained, burnt, lost, etc. People also wanted to make more of them. So, back in the day, a cottage industry popped up – book copying. Luckily, they existed, or else we might not have lost much.

Soya sauce bottles
Soya sauce bottles.

I also learned why it is hard to be successful in the business. Yasuo spoke of an informal apprenticeship period, in which people need to serve. You have to remember that many of these books are hundreds and hundreds of years old. The use of kanji (Chinese characters) in Japan was far more extensive than today. Many place names were different, too. So, much knowledge can only be gained after many years of work and, of course, reading.  I doubt it would be an easy process.

If you want to look at his books, it is possible. All you need to do is go to his store and ask! The ground floor is always open to the public. The staff will guide you if you want to look at the second floor. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to put your hands on anything, but you will at least be able to see parts of them.

ink drawing classic japanese scene antique book
2.7 million yen for this book.

Where is Sarashobou?

Get to Jinbochou station (Hanzomon, Mita, and Toei Shinjuku lines) and leave via exit 5. From there, it is a few minute’s walk. Click here to see it on Google Maps.

Wrapping up

Yasuo doesn’t speak much English, but don’t let that deter you. Everyone is welcome at his shop. There are many great books waiting for you. Click here to see his website.  

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