The Aomushi Showa Manga Library might be described, as that, a library, but actually it is the personal collection of Takano Yukio. Being a small-time, largely research-oriented collector myself, I know how nervous-making it is to have friends, let alone strangers, leaf through my old books. One applauds Takano even more for making his collection public considering the value of many of the exhibited 15,000 volumes.
How many private comic book collectors across the world have opened their own museums, let alone ones where the works can be handled and read?
Takano’s first love in manga was Kuwada Jirō’s Phantom Detective (Maboroshi tantei), an action-packed youth detective title begun in 1957, made famous as a radio and television program a couple of years later. As a kid, he read manga books and magazines mainly through rental kashihon stores, but found himself in the same situation as many Japanese kids when he reached middle school: banned by his parents from reading comics. It was not until after college that Takano began reading manga again, this time first while working at a used bookstore. He began to seek out the books he read as a youth, and before he knew it found himself combing the used bookstores of his hometown of Yokohama and neighboring Tokyo. Forty years later: 30,000 manga.
When I visited this past July, I asked Takano where he kept everything prior to Aomushi. “At home. The shelves were all filled. There were piles everywhere. You had to walk sideways through the hallways.” Apparently the idea for Aomushi arose partially out of necessity. He needed a place to put his collection. He wanted a place in the countryside. He found a warehouse in another town near to Tadami. The second half of the collection, covering the 70s to the 90s, is still there in boxes. Finally in 2003, he bought the current building, a former Christian church and nursery school. Though housing junk and drunks when Takano found it, the high-ceilinged wood frame building is now a clean, calming, and atmospheric space, far in design from the maddening, overcrowded, and garish environments of Japan’s other manga-topias.
Opened in 2006, Takano’s concept for Aomushi was a space to capture the nostalgic “natsukashii” of the early postwar decades. But you don't have to be a Japanese baby boomer to dig the place. The comics themselves are strong enough to overcome the generation gap. When your eyes tire of reading, lean back in the benches to stare up at the whirling fans. Walk out to the entrance and watch the goldfish swim around. Beckon for Oz, and when the Golden Lab and former guide dog comes trotting, give him some pets. For lunch, walk down the street to the Miyoshi Shokudō Cafeteria and have a “Sauce Katsudon,” a regional specialty consisting of fried pork cutlet in sweet sauce on a bed of cabbage, on an omelet, on a bowl of rice. Miso soup and pickles made from vegetables from local farms come free on the side. In the morning, walk down to the river. Or walk up the hill to Mitsuishi Shrine, its upper precincts a building buried in bulging rock. I don’t think Takano-san speaks much English, but if prodded he will tell you the secret to eating on 300 yen (4 USD) per day: rice, egg, miso soup, supplemented by free things from local farmers. And avoid anything written in katakana, which is to say Japanized Western words, for they are pricey, filled with additives, and low on basic nutrition. This diet is apparently also one of the key ingredients in keeping Aomushi open for business.
If it sounds like I am promoting the place, that's because I am. For the manga researcher or lover, it is totally worth going, if you have the time and money to spare (see below). Also, financially speaking, the library is not in great shape. Takano never expected to make a profit, but 2011 left him and Tadami’s tourism harried. First there was the Fukushima Dai’ichi reactor meltdown. The radiation levels in Tadami, some 150 km to the west, are roughly as low as they are in Shinjuku. But being in “Fukushima Prefecture,” the association of the name alone has meant a sharp drop in out-of-area visitors, Takano estimates more than half. Adding insult to injury, the Tadami River flooded in July of the same year, destroying many houses in the small town of 5000 people, coming just up to the doorstep of Aomushi. So the books were fine, but portions of the JR railway linking Tadami to the rest of the Japan were wiped out, with plans for reconstruction uncertain. The only way to get there now is by private car or a mix of train and bus. Not that one or two TCJ readers are going to make a direct difference, but the Aomushi Library like all tourist destinations depends on reputation and word of mouth. Being “world famous” helps attract even Japanese clientele.
Visiting: Aomushi is open from Noon to 5PM on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, between the beginning of May and the end of October. The rest of the year Tadami is buried beneath snow. It costs 500 yen (6 USD) an hour (fifth hour free), which might seem expensive. But not so much if you consider a) this is Japan, not a cheap place generally, b) you can read all the manga you want and on top of that get free coffee or tea, c) Aomushi runs on zero grants or endowments and entirely out of Takano-san’s pocket, and d) what a trip to the MoMA, Getty, or Art Institute would cost you without the tycoon-sponsored discounts and free-nights and whatnot. True, you won’t see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or La Grande Jatte. But you will find things that a) you will never see in reproduction ever and b) things that are far wilder as creative visions than the ole French avant-garde. Let’s be honest, the experience of looking at things stuck on the wall or in a case is pretty boring. Going to the museum, for me at least, is an activity of diminishing returns. As an aesthetic experience, as a passage to a “world of discoveries,” as a fix for comic book fanaticism, as a glimpse into Japanese history just at the point when manga was about to take off, if you want bang for your buck, this is not a bad investment.
Phone number: 0241-82-2779.
How to Get There: From Akakusa or Kita Senju stations in Tokyo, take an express on the Tōbu Tōjō Line north. While there are some direct trains, in most cases you will have to change at Kinugawa Onsen to the Aizu Railway (Aizu Tetsudō), and take that train through the hills and valleys north until you get to Aizu Tajima. At this point, you have already spent about four hours on the train. But as Nikkō is located about half way, on a spur of the Tōbu Tōjō line, not far from Kinugawa Onsen, it is easy to break the trip in half and work in a UNESCO site en route. Either way, after you get off at Aizu Tajima, you are still not done. Since the JR Tadami Line is no longer running, your only option for getting to Tadami is by bus from Tajima. The bus itself takes just over an hour (2000 yen / one way), but the real pinch is that there are only two per day (11:20 & 13:50) and that you must call the Tadami Tourism office at least three days in advance to book it (0241-82-5250). Same goes for the return to Tajima (departing Tadami 9:50 & 12:35). If you don’t speak Japanese, lucky for you the word for “bus” is the same and numbers the Japanese typically understand in English. As for lodging . . . if you really are going to go, look me up or post something below, and I will give you some final pointers.