Kinokuniya’s Flagship Bookstore in Tokyo Downsizes

Kinokuniya Bookstore, Tokyo

It couldn’t last; Heck, I’m surprised it stuck it out as long as it did. A six-story bookstore simply wasn’t meant for this world of online ordering and ebook readers. As of December 1st, the flagship store of the Kinokuniya bookstore chain has given up four of its six floors to a designer furniture shop. For now, the foreign books section remains on the sixth floor, and still stocks books in English and French and other languages, though anyone who’s visited recently knows, other merchandise such as large-scale wall calendars and t-shirts are encroaching on the floor space once reserved for books and magazines.

On a personal note, the Kinokuniya bookstore served as a critical landmark  when I first arrived in-country almost two decades ago and spun out a jet-lagged fugue in Shinjuku’s elevated walkways and neon canyonlands. I’ve made regular visits ever since, and always allowed myself the luxury of impulse purchases to help support one of my favourite places to kill time. I have to admit I’ve visited less in the last few years, but I’m going to miss riding the escalator from the sixth floor to the cafe where I could check out my latest purchases.

Sigh. End of an era.

Niigata 雪国 Yukiguni “Snow Country”

Sea of Japan Xoast; Niigata, Japan

Every year, winter storms out of Siberia and mainland Asia, picks up steam as it howls across the Sea of Japan, and crashes onto main-island Honshu, making Japan – literally – the snowiest country on earth. Fortunately for us, Tokyo is in the lee of the “roof of Japan,” mountain ranges which trap the worst of the cold and snow to the windward side. Areas such as Niigata prefecture, on the coastal plain between the Sea of Japan and mountains, are transformed into the 雪国 yukiguni “snow country” made famous in Kawabata’s sparse, bleak-as-winter-snow love story. Just as a point of reference, Niigata City averages 217 cm a year (Tokyo, on the other hand, is a paltry 11cm; my hometown of Toronto comes in at 115cm; my first host city in Japan, Nayoro in central Hokkaido, records a massive 890 cm). Traditionally, houses in snow country have a special door built on the second storey for winter. When I lived on Hokkaido, I had to shovel off the roof to avoid having our cabin crushed under the weight of snow; every winter a few homeowners disappear while shoveling roofs, only to re-appear in spring as the snowdrifts melt away.

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” – Kawabata, Snow Country (Seidensticker trans.)

Not surprisingly, until recently this part of Japan was quite isolated. In the 60s and 70s, a major highway and a shinkansen bullet train rail line connected Niigata City, and outlying mountain towns, to Tokyo and the rest of Japan. Niigata is also an important port: until the ship was linked to abductions and drugs and weapons smuggling in the early 2000s, a ferry connected Niigata with North Korea. Another ferry plies the Sea of Japan between Niigata and the once-closed Soviet-era city of Vladivostok – home to the Russian Pacific fleet, if you wanna know. 

Today, R. and I make the trip at least once a year to visit her family in the suburbs, near enough the sea to avoid the worst of the snowfall in the mountainous interior.

“I might as well be going to the ends of the earth” – Matsuo Basho, writing about the neighbouring prefecture of Tohoku

See more pictures on my Niigata gallery at 500px

Tokyo Photo Drift: Kichijoji

Hibana: Spark in Kichijoji


Netflix’s first-ever Japanese TV mini-series “Hibana: Spark,” a comedy-drama about a small group of struggling comedians in Tokyo, is getting decent reviews on (8.9 out of 10 stars), though considerably less well on the Japanese edition of Netflix itself (2 out of 5 stars). I dunno: my jury’s still out, if that makes sense. On the one hand, I kind of like Kamiyasan’s rebel-without-a-cause, art-for-art’s sake character, and his ambiguous relationship with Makisan is intriguing. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of manzai-style comedy, and a lot of the routines just don’t do much for me.

In any case, one of the biggest surprises about the show is the locations: a lot of the scenes are shot in K

ichijoji and nearby Kami Shakuji: R. lived in the latter when we first dated, and we both still spend a lot of time in the former. In fact, I was there today, and took the chance to shoot some rainy day pictures of the Harmonika Yokocho eating and drinking alley which figures prominently in Hibana, as well as some pictures of the new station building.


Tokyo Rainy Season 2016

The tsuyu (“plum rain”) rainy season doesn’t kick off officially in Tokyo until June 8, but already a steady rain is falling from skies the colour of dirty rice water. And is forecast to continue to do so every day this week…

Actually, the weather changed abruptly around mid-morning Saturday, Tokyo time. Until then, we’d enjoyed a gloriously warm, sunny, relatively dry early summer – perfect for hanging laundry (just saying). Then, before noon, sombre grey clouds overcast the city, the temperature dropped — and my allergies went into overdrive.

Fortunately, Japan has very effective over-counter-allergy medicine. Unfortunately, the best of the weather may be behind us here in the Big Sushi – and the rest of Japan. The forecast is apparently for a “La Niña” climate cycle to replace the El Niño, bringing – yet another – record-breaking hot summer.

We won’t be alone. Apparently for the first time in history, the whole planet has been setting month after month of heat records since March of 2015, which is itself a record: never before have there been 12 consecutive months of record heat.