Tokyo Photobook Trip, Part 1, by Robert Dunn

I’m taking a short break from reviewing photobooks for the magazine here, off to Japan, traveling with my wife, with three main purposes: to look for classic Japanese photobooks to bring home; to take enough pictures to make a book of my own; and to write about it all here. The following is Part 1 of my Tokyo Journal.

So we’re in Tokyo, staying at wonderful hotel a friend, Russet Lederman, recommended. Russet’s the founder of 10 x 10, a photobook salon and book publisher in New York City, and an expert on Japanese photobooks. She’s put us in the Hotel Niwa because it’s a great place, and an easy walk to Jimbocho, the main used-bookstore district. Checked in, not too jet-lagged, and off I go.

My first book-hunting stop is a couple dusty shops on Sakura street, the block behind the major used bookshop street, Kudanshita. I go to those first because, after touring the Chiyoda gardens with my wife, and eating a mountain of not-bad sushi at a joint in Shibuya (where you order the fish from a touch screen and it shuttles its way to you on three tiers of conveyor belts—no humans evidently involved, and thus the whole filling meal came to about six bucks, maybe the only bargain I’ll find in Tokyo), I’m primed to go hunt for those great old books.

But who knows what I’ll find. This is only my first full day, and I’m thrilled that we’ve already figured out the subways (sort of) and found we can get our bellies full even if every menu item is unreadable.

On Sakura, the first book I stumble on is Araki’s Oh Nippon, a book that while beautiful (the naked women, the wild layout, the, in 1971, perfection of an erotic style to be played out endlessly by him afterward) still seems to be just too many naked women. The price is decent, though the spine is torn, and I make a note of it. (There will be many notes on books and prices to come.)

At that first store seeing a classic photobook is a fluke. Next it’s around the corner to the well-known mecca for photobooks, Komiyama. Those magical Japanese sliding doors pop open, and here I am poking around on the first floor, already a vast number of interesting books, though nothing yet I really want. Actually, the one book I’m determined to purchase here in Japan is Daido Moriyama’s first book, Japan: A Photo Theater. I ask at the downstairs desk; a quick call, and I’m taken up to the fourth floor, where I find Keita Komiyama, the owner, whom I’ve met (and bought books from) during his sojourns to AIPAD and the New York Art Book Fair.

Keita greets me cheerfully, though the last time I saw him, a month or so back in Queens, he wouldn’t meet the price I offered for a copy of Shomei Tomatsu’s Okinawa, a book I’d like to own one day, though one I’m not as excited by as his other book from 1969, Oh, Shinjuku, which I do have a cherished copy of.

Keita has not one but two copies of Japan: A Photo Theater, one mint and another, well, less mint but fine—and signed by Daido. The price is not cheap, but I’m here to get a copy of this book, so I commit to it. I need my passport for tax purposes, and tell them I’ll return the next day to buy the book. Also, I can think it over.

Now this is the kind of place Komiyama is. I bring up Okinawa again. Keita brings out three copies, his assistant rushes up with another one, and there, under glass, is a fifth, which looks to be the copy I almost bought in NYC. (Okinawa is a flimsy paperback, almost 50 years old, and how many copies were printed? A thousand? Komiyama has five of them for sale.) Somehow the price has increased from what it would have been back home, so I pass again. I’m sure someday I can get it more reasonably. But … five copies? Crazy.

The next day, after a wild, fruitless search for a monthly antique flea market that Google Maps puts in three or four different places, including one purportedly in Yoyogi Park, which instead of antiques for sale takes us to the real deal, ancient scrolls and temples abloom with celebrants; and then an equally wild jaunt through neighboring Shibuya looking for the same conveyor sushi joint we ate in yesterday, and not turning it up, each street a jumble of indecipherable kanji, blaring signs for food, small storms of cute kids strolling about taking in the sunshine, then finally finding a restaurant that looks very similar inside but feels totally different, as if we’ve taken a quick turn into the Twilight Zone … anyway, full of sushi and burnt out on Shibuya, I subway back to Jimbocho, my oasis in this crazy town. There I head right back to Komiyama and purchase the copy of Japan: A Photo Theater.

Back in our lovely hotel room (Hotel Niwa, walking distance to Jimbocho), going through the book’s heavy wheat-colored paper, thick slabs of gravure ink, each page an amazing photo (ones we all know well, since they’re now Daido classics), the striking layout I’ve not before seen … I’m reminded of why at bottom I love a great photobook: As with Japan: A Photo Theater, they’re works of art in their own right, and to hold one in my hands, it’s like I’m not only going to an exceptional gallery or museum show, I own it. And all the prints in it! Indeed, I’d put the printing in Daido’s first book up against any darkroom prints hanging on a wall. The ink is thick, palpable, the images richer, more vivid, more alive.…

Ah, the magic of a classic photobook, and also of shopping at Komiyama for books I’ve only read about in the Parr-Badger series, or in Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko’s Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s. I mean, you go up to the fourth-floor office, conjure up a book’s name, and the store owner pulls it out. I mentioned the Tomatsu Okinawa book from yesterday, those five copies. Well, before I buy the Daido book I find a mint copy of Miyako Ishiuchi’s Apartment, with obi, signed, just sitting on the fourth-floor counter, a book I certainly wouldn’t mind owning, even if I don’t pant for it. I handle it carefully. A bit more than I can even entertain a notion of paying for, yes? No problem. Here’s another copy, sans obi, sans signature, in pretty darn good shape though, for about half the price. These are also books with print runs of, what, at most a thousand? And here are two of them for purchase just sitting there. Yes, Komiyana is that kind of store.

The owner and half the staff are getting ready to go to Paris Photo. I’m getting ready to head off to Kyoto in a few days, but I’ll be back in Tokyo on my own for a week and a half starting on Halloween, to take photos and look for more photobooks. The Komiyama staff won’t be leaving till November 5th, so I’ll have more opportunity to weigh the value of buying books here and now in Japan that I might not ever see again even in New York City.

For that, stay tuned.

But on this second full day I’m not yet done. I head around the corner for Bohemian Guild, a slender used bookstore with an admirable (if not magical) assortment of photobooks. A little tired, I still pick up an original copy of Takuma Nakahira’s Adieu A X, a fine work in the Provoke tradition, with obi, for a very decent price.

So far Tokyo, especially Jimbocho, is truly a photobook hunter’s paradise.

And as I find out on our third day, I don’t understand the half of it.

It’s Monday, and my wife wants to go to a venerable paintbrush store in the Ginza (horsehair brushes, boar bristle brushes!) and I tag along to see the shopping street, and take my own photos. The picture taking goes well enough, especially as I’ve discovered one rule (of hundreds, thousands?) of getting around Tokyo: don’t take the subway if you’re only going one stop to make a transfer, as in, you’ll be up and down five flights of stairs and probably walk halfway underground to the station you want. Better to stay aboveground and take it all in.

So I head over to a station that gives me a one-line shot back to Jimbocho. When I get off, I’m trying to find a store I heard about, discoverable, as the online article has it, “If you emerge from the subway at exit A4, you’ll find Gyozando Antique Books just around the corner. The staircase that leads to this tiny bookstore (2nd floor) is between a massage centre and an adult magazine store.“ Well, I find the stairway, climb to the second floor; it’s a dentist’s office. I ask other booksellers where Gyozando is, and get pointed this way, and that … and still can’t find it. (Another lesson of the city: know when you’re licked trying to turn up an address.)

O.K., I’ll just head back to the center of Jimbocho, see what else I can turn up, when I make the discovery of the trip (at least so far). I see a sign that says something about art books but nothing about photobooks, decide what the hey and go into the shop, only to discover books as amazing as at Komiyama (and, as it turns out, a lot more affordable).

The store’s a bit of a jumble, some classic photos on the wall, a bunch of rock and roll paraphernalia, but then rows and rows of photobooks. I’m nosing around when an old cardboard case catches my eye. Could this be Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come? I own a nice repro from the Steidl Japanese Box; could this be the original?

It is. I carefully slide out the book, it’s pristine. Ask the friendly young woman behind the counter, um, how much it is. She looks at the label, then quotes me a price in millions of yen. “Got it,” I say, “really expensive.” She looks again. “Oh, I don’t mean millions, I mean thousands.”

I gulp. It’s affordable, far less than half what copies online go for.

I keep looking. I remember my interest in Tomatsu’s Okinawa, any chance she has a copy of … oh, they did, but it’s been sold. Sorry. Well, how about his Nippon, another book I’m looking—

And there it is, original mylar from 1967. Also pristine. Also less than half what an online copy goes for. I swallow hard.

I tell her I’m interested in both books, and she says I should talk to the shop’s owner, who will be back soon. Fine. Meanwhile, I keep looking around. Almost hidden is a copy of Daido’s Light and Shadow, another book I’ve always wanted.

Long story short, the owner turns up, and after saying, “I have cheapest prices,” proceeds to give me a far better deal on all three books. A deep breath, and I go for it. This is why I’m here in Tokyo, right? To find books I might never even see in New York, well, maybe at a Swann Gallery auction, but probably never be able to afford.

Book wise, the trip is already a success, but I have another purpose: to make my own photobook. As I do at home in New York, I take my camera everywhere, and I’ve been snapping away. I’ve been taking pictures that feel like the kind of pictures I take, which is both reassuring and a little disconcerting; I think I was hoping for something wholly unexpected and new. Well, I’ve only been in Tokyo a few days, so we shall see.

(Actually, I’ve been in Japan over a week now, posting this from Kyoto, where we’ve been for three days so far. All photos accompanying this piece were taken by me over this first week in-country. In a few more days I’ll be back in Tokyo for nine days, so Part 2 will take in my photobook adventures and photos over that stretch.)

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.