Photo/IllutrationVisitors spend their coffee time at the Atelier de Reve on the premises of Kita Ward Central Library, popularly known as the “red brick library.” (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

“It’s nothing personal, but really? This ... is ... not a pleasant place,” I muttered to myself when I checked out the local library near my new apartment in a new ward.

Last year, I moved to an area in Tokyo that shall remain unnamed, except to say that it is a short bicycle ride to the Imperial Palace.

The sizable library was dismal, to say the least. The facility had a musty odor that made breathing difficult, and it was impossible to find a place to sit, not that I’d like to spend any more time than absolutely necessary in such a place.

It was horrid, and I was in and out in no time.

Enter Kita Ward Central Library, loved by locals and referred to as “Akarenga Toshokan,” a place worth going out of your way to visit.

It’s beautiful. It’s inspiring. It’s cultural. It’s a feel-good place to linger and broaden one’s horizons. It’s what a library should be--a place to cleanse the soul and leave one with thoughts to ponder.

The library is located on land that used to be part of the Imperial Japanese Army’s First Tokyo Arsenal. After World War II, it was occupied by the U.S. military. In 1958, control was turned over to the Ground Self-Defense Force and later to Kita Ward.

The red brick building was originally erected in 1919 as a weapons factory and warehouse. It stood empty for many years until some visionaries cleverly and artistically converted it into a public library in 2008. Using reclaimed materials and keeping the exposed steel pillars intact as accents, new life was breathed into the once-neglected structure.

Compact yet thoughtful exhibitions and added touches abound within this award-winning architectural gem.

I especially liked the placards strategically placed with old folk tales of the local area gathered from the ward’s “kyodo shiryokan” historical reference museum. The past has made the present, and we are now creating the future. This library respects and honors the past, which is very important.

There’s a terrace on the second floor next to the excellent children’s section where visitors can browse or read books when the weather permits. Book readings for babies (yes, babies) and toddlers are regularly held. When I visited, a woman was performing a “kamishibai” picture-story show, and children, their eyes lit up, were engrossed in the live rendering of an enchanting tale.

Sip coffee on the premises at the Atelier de Reve, a designer cafe that one often comes across in sophisticated European cities, and revel in a quiet, well-spent afternoon at a beautiful library.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the May 6 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.