Settle in for an autumn of reading at Tokyo’s book cafes

Leo Howard

Tokyo: Come autumn, the Japanese will throw around phrases that point to seasonal hobbies such as supotsu no aki (autumn of sports), geijitsu no aki (autumn of art) and dokusho no aki (autumn of reading).
The first two are reflected in the sports and culture festivals held at the nation’s schools, but the dokusho no aki is said to come from the fact that the weather is getting cooler and it’s more pleasant to sit around with a book and a cup of tea.
You may be thinking that sitting around at home is all you’ve done for the past few months as the world was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, so, for those who feel comfortable with a change of scenery, grab a mask and check out some of these book-themed eateries around Tokyo while it’s still warm enough to sit in a room with open windows.

Bundan: To start with, I suggest heading over to an institution devoted to literature (well, a certain genre of it, at least). Bundan is a cafe tucked away in the back of the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature in Meguro Ward — with a menu featuring dishes and drinks inspired by books and authors. For something sweet, how about a hot chocolate inspired by Natsume Soseki’s “And Then”? Or for a jolt of caffeine, take a sip of the Akutagawa, a Brazilian coffee named after the famed novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He, and other prominent Japanese writers, frequented Cafe Paulista, a kissaten (coffee shop) with a close connection to Brazil. If you’re feeling peckish, tuck into the “Sherlock Holmes”-inspired beer soup and salmon pie set.
If the size of the venue concerns you, the cafe’s large windows provide plenty of ventilation. There is also a veranda in the front of the museum, so you can take your beverage or food from Bundan outside and enjoy the soothing verdant green of Komaba Park nearby.

Brooklyn Parlor: Most plans to travel abroad have been put on hold these days, so why not pretend to spend an afternoon in the Big Apple? Brooklyn Parlor, a restaurant and cafe for casual dining in the basement of the Marui Annex in Shinjuku Ward, does a good job of getting you into that New York state of mind. It’s spacious and its walls are lined with bookshelves brimming with art books and magazines, which you can peruse as much as you like. If your voracious reading works up an appetite, fill up with items from the New York-themed menu. The mortadella and gouda panini is highly recommended. Brooklyn Parlor also has branches in Osaka, Fukuoka and Sapporo.

RBL Cafe uses every inch (save for the ceiling and floor) to stock books — and not just any genre, but those pertaining to that quirky pastime, quiz games. Founded by a quiz fanatic, RBL Cafe (the letters stand for Reference Books Library, but also Read Between the Lines) is a relaxing, warmly lit venue located in the artsy neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, Setagaya Ward. In a cozy atmosphere, the reading chairs are strategically placed so you are facing the bookshelves, not other people, and its large windows more than make up for its boxy shape. Don’t forget about the excellent drinks menu, which is complemented by a small selection of snacks.

Route Books: If you’re feeling deprived of nature in Tokyo’s concrete jungle, head to Route Books. Hidden away in the quiet backstreets of Higashi-Ueno, this two-story bookstore and cafe feels like stepping into a greenhouse, without the stifling humidity. This serene oasis is just a few minutes’ walk away from Ueno Station, and provides a laid-back and calming atmosphere perfect for some book-loving. There’s also a select menu of drinks and homemade sweets. To curtail pandemic-related concerns, the cafe’s windows are kept open.

Hama House: Situated in Tokyo’s financial district of Nihonbashi, Hama House is a well-lit cafe with a focus on eating healthy — and, of course, reading. The eatery boasts high ceilings (five meters) and two walls decked out with bookshelves. Parents, take note: Children’s books have been thoughtfully placed on the bottom shelves. This welcoming restaurant offers a pleasant environment for nutritious eating (take advantage of the healthy deli plate menu, which allows you to choose from two main dishes and six deli items) and indulgent reading.