Once you step into Ohya-shobo, it’s like you’ve slipped back in time to the Edo period (1603-1868). The Edo period is a time that culture flourished in Japan, with the long era of peace by rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Founded in 1882, Ohya-shobo is packed with ancient Japanese books, maps, and Ukiyo-e prints and paintings from this era.
I was first introduced to Ohya-shobo by my former boss. He was an “Edo-kko”, which means “genuine Tokyo local.” He ate soba, Japanese noodles, every single day for lunch, he loved sake, he ate sushi like a pro, and he knew all the authentic places in Tokyo. He once told me about this time-machine bookstore, and he recommended it as a great place to buy gifts for friends abroad.
You may be surprised to think that Ukiyo-e prints and paintings from 100-300 years ago can be bought, but at Ohya-shobo, you will find old Ukiyo-e in piles, casually placed at the back of the store. One pile is stacked with Ukiyo-e priced under 50,000 yen, and the other pile is stacked with anything above. Some are as cheap as 5,000 yen and expensive ones can go up to 500,000 yen. Other paintings that are specially stored cost much more, and you may be able to find real Ukiyo-e work by some of the most famous Ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Hiroshige Utagawa.
Ohya-Shobo also houses many Japanese books of all genres from the Edo period, including books on tea ceremony, martial arts, science, medicine, novels, classics, and old maps. This is because in the Edo-period, Ukiyo-e artists were also designers that worked with the publishers in all genres. They drew Ukiyo-e art as well as maps and illustrations for books.
The Washi paper that was used in the Edo period has strong durability, and some of the books are in amazing shape. Taking the books in hand really pull you into the Edo period – they are the actual books enjoyed by the people of Edo.
Ohya-Shobo was founded in 1882 in Asakusa by Fusataro Kouketsu. He was a famous auctioneer in the book industry of the time. The way he brought the sellers and the buyers together with jokes, humor, and speed became well known, and the prices of the books he auctioned soared. Because of this, publishers treated him well, often taking him out to lavish dinners accompanied by Geisha. Fusataro was a dandy, handsome gentleman with an iconic white beard, and he was quite popular among the Geishas. Fusataro relocated his bookstore 4 times until he finally settled at the current address, Jimbocho 1-1-1. You can tell from this address that Ohya-shobo holds an important place in the town of Jimbocho.
Fusataro’s son was Ueo, and he encountered the Great Kanto Earthquake as well as World War 2 during his time. The fire from the bombings in Tokyo during WW2 spread on the northern side of Jimbocho, but thankfully the fire did not reach Ohya-Shobo. Although many businesses were forced to close during the war, Ueo did everything he could to save his store during these hard times. Ueo collected books exclusively from the Edo and Meiji periods, and this became the foundation of Ohya-Shobo’s famous collection. He was also active in preserving the town of Jimbocho, and when a government plan to run a highway on the street Ohya-Shobo stands, he fought hard until the plan was withdrawn.
Ueo’s son, Kimio, still stands at the bookstore to this day. Born in 1939, he is the third generation owner of this store, and at 78 years old he is still very active in constantly renewing the collections, and flies around the world to various book auctions. His daughter, Kuri, also stands at the bookstore along with her father. Since Kuri was a little girl, she would accompany him on many of the book auctions and naturally she knew she would become the 4th generation owner of Ohya-shobo. At a recent auction by an American Ukiyo-e collector, she successfully bid a Ukiyo-e piece she fell in love with. She bought it home to examine the piece carefully, and to her surprise she found her grandfather’s handwriting on the title of the piece. The Ukiyo-e art that went to America a long time ago came back to the store after many decades. Kuri says it’s like she’s able to “talk” to her grandfather through these Ukiyo-e pieces that find theirselves back to the store after many decades.
I bought home with me a piece by famous Ukiyo-e artist Toyokuni Utagawa. Born in 1769, Toyokuni was the son of a wooden doll and puppet maker Gorobei Kurahashi. In 1796, his works of famous kabuki actors was published as a book called “Portraits of Kabuki Actors on Stage.” Back in the Edo period, cameras did not exist of course, so theatre-goers bought these portraits of Kabuki actors, making yakusha-e, portraits of kabuki actors, very popular. There were several artists that were famous for the portraits, however, Toyokuni’s works portrayed kabuki actors just as you might see them on stage, meticulously drawing every detail of not only the actor but also the stage. Sharaku is another famous Ukiyo-e artist that was famous for the yakusha-e, but it is said Toyokuni’s popularity was much higher than Sharaku’s, making him the most famous Ukiyo-e artist of his time.
The portrait below is of Danjuro Ichikawa VII, the most prominent kabuki actor of the time. You can tell it is Danjuro since he is wearing the Kama-wa-nu yukata (green one) that is only allowed in the prestigious Ichikawa Dajuro family.
Ohya-Shobo is a special bookstore that can take you back in time. If you are looking for a unique gift or special present from Tokyo, this is the place to go.
Business days: Monday through Saturday
Business hours: 10:00-18:00
1-1 Kandajinbocho, Chiyoda-ku Tokyo,
(zip code)101-0051 Japan