Harajuku may be Tokyo’s centre for flamboyant youth fashion, but Sugamo is where the golden generation go to strut their styles. This otherwise unspectacular corner of Toshima ward is famed for its Jizo-dori, an 800m shopping street where elderly folks from all over the city and further afield stroll, shop and spend quality time with each other.
Although the area essentially owes its popularity among retirees to a single statue – a depiction of the Jizo bodhisattva housed at Koganji Temple (3-35-2 Sugamo, Toshima-ku, 03 3917 8221), more on that in a moment – its charm has far deeper roots nowadays. Passing underneath the sign that marks the entrance to Jizo-dori – a ubiquitous prop on Japanese television whenever anything senior-related gets airtime – you’ll soon notice that the doorways to virtually every shop, café, clinic and pub lining the street are free of stairs or other obstacles, with most wide enough to be entered in wheelchair.
Equally accessible is the grand temple around which Jizo-dori originally developed, where visitors from near and far queue up for their turn to wash the iron likeness of Togenuki Jizo, the miracle-making statue said to have the power to heal any ailment. Doing the deed at least once a month is supposed to ensure optimal health benefits – a dictate much appreciated by local merchants and eateries, we’re sure.
But a barrier-free environment is about more than just smooth streets and ramps: those working customer service in Sugamo are used to the elderly, exhibit remarkable flexibility and even speak at a less hectic pace than their counterparts elsewhere in the city. It’s this welcoming attitude that keeps seniors coming back, although the low prices certainly help too: our favourite deal is the array of age-related discounts offered by the Uruulu nail salon (2F, 3-21-17 Sugamo, Toshima-ku, 090 4676 2580, umeda67.wixsite.com/uruulu, 10am-5pm, closed Wed, Sun & hols), where anyone over 50 gets 50 percent off, those over 60 get 60 percent and so on – 100-year-olds can have their talons tended to for free.
Visiting Sugamo is best done on the fourth, 14th or 24th day of the month, when local shops and restaurants put out stalls over the length of Jizo-dori and the line at Koganji snakes out through the temple gates. If you can’t make it on any of these dates, consider going on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday, when the shopping street is off limits to cars between noon and 6pm (3-6pm on other days).
Once you’ve picked up some luck-bringing red underwear – a Sugamo speciality sold at several different outlets in the area – stop for a cup of matcha tea and some traditional Japanese sweets at the Kanro Shichifukujin café (3-37-5 Sugamo, Toshima-ku, 03 5394 3694, 11am-6pm, closed Thu), where a trio of well-fed cats stand guard and occasionally step inside to play with the patrons. For a more substantial meal, opt for Takeyama (3-37-2 Sugamo, Toshima-ku, 03 3915 5709, daily 9.30am-6pm), where carnivorous seniors can be seen digging into hamburg steaks and pan-fried ginger pork.