December 18, 2008


After the relatively quite stop at Otsuka, I was looking forward to the next stop, Sugamo. This place is famous for two reason in Japan. Firstly, Sugamo Prison has a prominent place in modern Japanese history. Initially built in the twenties to detain political prisoners, it is better known for its use in the occupation period, when Japan was under US occupation, and the facilities were used to hold suspected war criminals, including former Prime Minister Tojo. The prison itself was located on the land which is now home to the Ikebukuro Sunshine Building.

However, Sugamo is now famous in contemporary Japan for a different reason. It is known as the 'Harajuku for grannies', with Sugamo Jizo Dori, a long shopping street that targets senior citizens, gaining fame nationwide.
In order to reach Sugamo Jizo Dori, you have to head north from the station along Route 17 for a couple of hundred metres, and you'll soon see a large sign over a street forking off to the left.

You immediately notice that shop after shop is full of comfy shoes, cheap clothes aimed at the elderly, shopping trolleys, walking sticks, hearing aids and more traditional groceries.
Part way down the street is Koganji Temple, teeming with people and full of stalls selling snacks, dried fruit and cloth for kimonos.

One of the most popular features is a statue of Buddha. People queue up for a long while, buy a small towel and then, when their turn comes, soak the statue with water and rub it down with the towel. Given the amount of time people spent rubbing the statue, I think the minimum wait would have been about half an hour.

Given the older clientele, there are lots of shops selling more traditional foodstuffs such as dried fish, fresh seaweed and rice crackers.

One of the most famous products you can buy are "aka pantsu", or red pants. They are said to improve your health due to the warmth of the colour, and also bring happiness and ward off evil spirits. All for just 500 yen or so. As tempting a product as it seemed, I didn't purchase any, because I had already donned my red boxers for the day as a tribute to the area.

I stopped in a noodle shop for lunch to have tempura soba, and I was clearly the only customer in the place below retirement age. That, in addition to being non-Japanese, meant I got the odd curious look, which is fairly unusual in Tokyo.

A small shrine on the quieter end of the street.

I worked my way back along the shopping street and back at the point where it joins Route 17, there is the Shinshoji Temple.There is currently some building work going on in front of the main building, but the grounds contain a few statues of interest.

I briefly checked out the area to the south of the station, but there is comparatively little of interest here for the casual visitor. A small sleazy street runs behind the main road near the station, and there are a couple of uninspiring urban parks, which are little more than open spaces with one or two trees and some public toilets.
There was, however, this great Marvel Comic style poster for a pachinko parlor.

If you haven't been before, the grannies' shopping heaven is worth checking out for the sheer novelty, but it'll be a few years yet before I think about going there for a regular shop.

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