TOKYO FOR KIDS

Shopping for the little bookworms

by Chris Bamforth

It’s bedtime and you’re keen for the little ones to get off to sleep so you can return to that DVD you left on pause. For their story, you try winging it again with a Japanese picture book, but the version you concoct this time is different to what you told them before. Pointing out that you’ve got the story wrong, the kids are suddenly wide awake. High time, you decide, to replenish your stock of English books. Here is a selection of where to shop for children’s books in Tokyo.

A good place to begin is Maruzen, which more than a few parents regard as the city’s best all-round bookstore for children’s books, and its new building near Tokyo Station must qualify it as Tokyo’s most attractive bookstore.

Maruzen certainly has an extensive selection, though the hefty prices will not endear it to everyone. The shop is good on large-format picture books, though my little research assistant was disappointed that the shop didn’t stock a single book on dinosaurs. The section on English books pales beside the wonderful Japanese books on the floor below, which also has a large mat onto which kids can flop down to read.

Maruzen claims to have over a million books, and the only other bookstore in town able to make a similar claim is Kinokuniya, which probably has Tokyo’s largest selection of English-language reading materials. The selection of children’s books at its biggest branch, Shinjuku South Store, is not as extensive as Maruzen’s, though the books that Kinokuniya does stock somehow seem more like the kind of books you would actually want to buy.

The fun element is high at Kinokuniya, and as well as standard-format titles, there is a selection of pop-up books and books with toys attached. Kinokuniya has a limited range of videos and CDs as well as some rather interesting games.

Though better known for its music, Tower Records also stocks books and magazines, with the Shibuya branch in particular having an excellent selection. The children’s section at the Shibuya branch is surprisingly comprehensive, with relatively more floor and shelf space here devoted to younger readers than is the case at Kinokuniya. Books at Tower are divided according to age range, from toddlers to teenagers. The volume of educational books is high, and along with flash cards and books on science, history, math and art, there is a decent selection of the fine “Eyewitness” series, which covers everything from Bats to Bible Lands. Pretty decent too are some of the prices, with good deals, like an 800-page, large-format children’s encyclopedia in full color for under 3,000 yen.

Among the many bookstores in this city are some that specialize in children’s books, and among these Crayon House, near Omotesando Station, is — with its 50,000 books — generally regarded as the best of its kind in Japan.

The first floor of this store is mainly devoted to children’s books in Japanese, but they do have an interesting section of books in English. The books here are mainly hard-back picture books aimed at younger readers, but the serendipity factor is high, with such rare finds as Arthur Rackham illustrated books, which you tend not to get elsewhere.

A big plus with Crayon House is the toy shop on the second floor, where the emphasis is on toys made from wood and natural materials, and in the basement there are two good, though not cheap, organic restaurants and a store selling organic foods.

Another bookstore specializing in children’s reading materials is Fiona in Jiyugaoka, which claims to have Tokyo’s largest collection of children’s books in English. As well as its extensive selection of interesting picture books, Fiona has some good educational books in science, math and art, and it is certainly worth making the trip out here for those in search of the interesting and unusual. The shop also stocks educational toys, music tapes and videos such as the “Blue’s Clues” and Richard Scarry series.

A bookshop specializing in younger readers closer to the center can be found at Kids Books in Hiroo. Kids Books is a comfortable, pleasant store that developed out of a mail-order business. (The mail-order operation has continued, though it’s hard to make an order unless you read Japanese.) The selection of titles at the store is certainly attractive, with something of interest here for children of all ages. There is a good range of picture books and junior literature. Books on parenting and educational materials are also to be had.

Given the high price of all English books in Japan, buying secondhand is a smart option. Good Day Books in Ebisu may have more volumes on sale, but Blue Parrot, which has branches in Takadanobaba and Akihabara, always seems so much more congenial and child-friendly.

Blue Parrot stocks around 20,000 books at its larger branch in Takadanobaba, and it is has a useful section of children’s books in English. The variety is certainly greater at some of the regular bookstores above, but with some decent small books going for as little as 100 yen, Blue Parrot is hard to beat for price. As well as books there are CDs, DVDs and videos, with such bargains as Bob the Builder videos going for 500 yen.

Booknooks about town

Blue Parrot

Obayashi Biru 3F, 2-14-10 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku; Takadanobaba Station; tel. (03) 3202-3671; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., daily; English Web site: www.blue.parrottokyo.com/home.html

Crayon House

3-8-15 Kita Aoyama, Minato-ku; Omotesando Station (exit A1, the store is located in the back streets behind the Hanae Mori Building); tel. (03) 3406-6492; 11 a.m.-7 p.m., daily.

Fiona

5-41-5 Okusawa, Setagaya-ku; Jiyugaoka Station; tel. (03) 3721-8186; 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; English Web site: www.fiona.co.jp/index_e.htm

Kids’ Books

2F Kitamura 60 kan, 5-16-1 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; Hiroo Station; tel. (03) 3498-5260; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (6 p.m. on Sunday), closed first, third and fifth Mondays; Web site (mainly Japanese) www.kidsbks.co.jp/

Kinokuniya

Shinjuku South Store, Times Square Building, 5-24-2 Sendagaya; Shinjuku Station; tel. (03) 5361-3301; daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; tel. (03) 5361-3301; Web site: www.kinokuniya.co.jp/english/contents/offices.html

Maruzen

Maruzen Marunouchi, B1F-4F Marunouchi OAZO, 1-6-4 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; Tokyo Station; tel. (03) 5288-8881; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; www.maruzen.co.jp/ home-eng/shopping/stores.html

Tower Records

Tower Records Shibuya, 1-22-14 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku; Shibuya Station, tel. (03) 3496-3661; 10 a.m.-10 p.m., daily (usually closes one day a month). uk. towerrecords.com/international/japan.asp