Everyone who has either been to Japan or is planning to visit the country has most probably heard of Harajuku, but the same cannot be said for its more senior, or should I say seasoned counterpart, Sugamo.
Sugamo (巣鴨), affectionately referred to as the Harajuku for Grandmas, is a shopping district that takes the intense, high-strung energy of Harajuku and dials it down to a more mellow, senior-friendly level. Young ones and the young once can head over to Sugamo for a laid back day of visiting a temple, shopping for classic, comfy clothes, munching on sweets, and capping the day off by purchasing a customary pair of red underwear.
Speaking from a business perspective, the sheer size of Japan’s elderly population makes this place a significant market segment with specific needs that cannot be overlooked, and they certainly weren’t. Let’s face it, Harajuku isn’t for everyone, and Sugamo offers a great alternative for those who are on the more ‘chill’ end of the spectrum.
The History of Sugamo
Sugamo (巣鴨) directly translates to ‘duck nest’ and while not much is known about exactly why it’s named this way, it explains why you’ll be seeing a whole lot of Sugamon, their town mascot, which happens to be the most adorable white duck!
You may be wondering how it gotta be so popular with older people and the answer is quite simple: they just understood their needs. No tiring inclined roads to burden aching knees, a handicap-friendly open layout fully accessible by wheelchairs, traditional shopping and dining options, patient shopkeepers, very reasonable prices, and having things just as they were back in the good ‘ol days. Now, I can’t be the only one below the age of 65 who actually finds this inviting! I mean, doesn’t this sound like a great place to just slow things down and spend a lazy day of wandering?
Getting To Sugamo
Make it to Sugamo through the Sugamo Station (巣鴨駅; sugamo-eki), which is served by both the Yamanote Line of the JR East Company, and the Mita Line of the Toei Subway. It’s about 20 minutes away from Shinjuku Station. Immediately get to Jizō-dōri, the main shopping street, by exiting through the North part of the station.
What To Do In Sugamo
Kōganji Temple (高岩寺)
Relocated from Ueno during 1891, this popular temple is actually the main attraction of Sugamo and plays a major factor as to why older folk frequent the area. Moreover, businesses started proliferating precisely when the temple was relocated here. It is dedicated to a statue of Jizō Togenuki (地蔵とげぬき), a Buddhist Bodhisattva (a venerated highly-enlightened being on a path towards being a Buddha) that people pray to for healing.
Legend has it that during the Edo period, a Samurai’s wife was miraculously healed from an incurable disease after the Samurai drew an image of Jizō from his dream, prayed to it, and let it float along the Sumida River. Another woman, who, thankfully, isn’t the Samurai’s wife, accidentally swallowed a needle. She ate a piece of paper with Jizō’s image on it and claimed to have been able to expel the needle safely and without injury. The latter story is why the Bodhisattva came to be called Togenuki, which stands for ‘thorn removal’. The thorns, nowadays, have more of a symbolic rather than literal definition.
It is common practice to gently pour some water (from the water receptacle) over the stone statue with the bamboo dippers provided, then wipe the statue with a small clean hand towel (that you can purchase in the temple for 100 yen), and then press the towel against any ailing part of your body. This ritual is known as Arai Kannon (洗い観音) or the washing of the Buddhist god. Another healing ritual would be purchasing Omikage (御影), 5 paper talismans bearing the image of Jizō, and either sticking it to the parts of your body that need healing or actually eating the strips of paper (which aren’t too big and are around half the size of a train ticket).
Do note that there could be a line for this and if you’re there on a date with a 4 (during the 4th, 14th, and 24th of the month) the area can get especially crowded because these days are considered very lucky days. The temple holds a small festival at this time and it is definitely worth visiting during these dates despite the crowds. Many stalls pop up specially for this occasion and the entire Sugamo is on celebration mode!
Jizō-dōri (地蔵通り; Jizō Street)
Sugamo’s reputation as the Harajuku for Grannies is primarily due to this 800-meter stretch of retro-looking road lined with over 200 shops selling everything from loose and stretchy clothing, hats, knickknacks, and old-fashioned snacks, to pretty much anything that was in vogue during the Shōwa period. Browse through the flea market at the end of the road and you might actually be able to score some gems that were literally from this bygone era! Sellers are friendly, patient, and most importantly, they give out free samples! Throwbacks are all the rage at the moment and you can’t get any more authentic than this, and did I mention free samples?
Sugamon No Oshiri (すがもんのおしり; Sugamon’s Butt)
There to welcome you upon entering Jizō-dōri is a pillar, or should I say butt-ress of Sugamo’s identity. It’s a white fluffy monument that you couldn’t miss, even if you tried. The signs are in Japanese, but it’s highly recommended to preserve the time-honored tradition of touching this monument to find true love which could ultimately lead to a lasting and fruitful marriage. It is a truly unique experience that is only made even more priceless when you see the faces of tourists after realizing that what they have touched was nothing less than a giant duck butt. See, seniors know how to have fun too!
Once you’ve earned your stripes as a part of the Sugamo community by stroking the honorable fluffy butt, you’re ready for the next stage and are worthy of a good luck charm of utmost practicality. While finding a particular store in a place like this can quickly turn into a nightmare, spotting Maruji won’t be a problem thanks to their monochromatic merchandise. Everything they sell is of the red variety… and of the underwear variety.
The Japanese believe that wearing red underwear or Aka-pants (赤 Aka means ‘red’) can bring you good fortune because the color is associated with vitality and good health. There’s actually a more technical explanation for this. According to Daoist beliefs, your lower dantian (丹田) or life energy lies in your lower abdomen—two inches below your navel, to be exact—because it is where vital organs such as your kidneys and sexual organs are located. Since red is associated with warmth, wearing red underwear is said to help with increasing the energy in this dantian. This makes it a popular gift for elderly loved ones and babies, as well, and what better place to get it than the self-proclaimed seller of the best red underwear in Japan!
Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura (東京染井温泉)
Escape from the hustle and bustle of this lively city, but wait a minute… Sugamo is actually quite laid back already. Who needs a reason to chill at an onsen anyway? No one! Sakura Onsen boasts all-natural, crystal clear water directly from a hot spring 1,800 meters underground—a rare treat in Tokyo. This quaint Onsen a stone’s throw away from the Sugamo Station provides a variety of pools and massage facilities. The food is said to be surprisingly delicious too! Just a few things to take note of, though you’ll be segregated by gender, you’ll have to bathe in the nude, and the ban on tattoos is still strictly enforced.
What To Eat In Sugamo
Some of you may associate this name with a Japanese sportswear brand, but all of that could change after a visit to this traditional Japanese confectionery. They’ve been around since 1937 and are credited as the birthplace of the Shio-daifuku (塩大福). The name itself literally translates to ‘salt-great luck’, but it’s actually Mochi (餠; glutinous rice) filled with Anko (餡子;sweetened red bean paste) and generously covered in starch. This edible lucky charm is made with a hint of salt to balance out this very chewy and sweet dessert. Mizuno offers a wide selection of freshly made Mochi-based desserts and at around 110 to 200 yen a piece, they’re definitely worth a taste.
If you’re visiting during spring, you should try out Eitarō’s Ichigo-daifuku (苺大福), which is a strawberry wrapped in Mochi. Springtime is certainly the season when strawberries are the juiciest and sweetest and to have them with freshly-made, chewy, sticky, Mochi is just a treat. This Wagashi (和菓子; sweets shop) is also quite old and was established back in 1930. They offer Kakigōri (かき氷; shaved ice), fruit bowls, jellies, and other Mochi-based desserts, so you could go all out and have a dessert eating spree here to taste the bounty of traditional sweets that Japan has to offer.
Kintaro (金太郎) or ‘golden boy’ is a beloved figure in Japanese folklore. He was raised in the woods and is believed to have superhuman strength, which is only rivaled by the strength of his character. He is adored so much by the nation that they decorate rooms of little boys with dolls in his likeness during Children’s Day (May 5) in the hope that the child would grow up to be like him. Children’s Day happens to fall on Golden Week and although you might be thinking that this common use of the word ‘gold’ somehow connects the Golden Boy with Golden Week, oddly enough, there isn’t really a link between them.
We have a rather interesting article about everything you need to know about Japan’s Golden Week, which you should definitely check out. Another odd thing that you might notice once you meet Kintaro for the first time would be that this golden boy isn’t golden at all, but is, in fact, pinkish red. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you visit this candy store whose name literally translates to ‘Kintaro Candy’. They’re known for their hard candies which have Kintaro’s face at the center. Now this may not sound like that much of a big deal with all the fancy candies out in the market, but you might be surprised to know that people have been making such candy since the Edo Period (1603 – 1868).
Oimoyasan Koshin (おいもやさん興伸)
All this talk about sweets may make you feel like munching on some vegetables to atone for all the sins you’ve committed against your health. Oimoyasan Koshin is a 140-year old establishment that takes a beloved vegetable and prepares it in countless delicious ways and that vegetable is no other than the sweet potato. It’s technically a vegetable, right? In defense of this often misunderstood vegetable, it is the healthier potato and it’s packed with lots of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. Besides, even if it weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to resist their sweet potato snacks.
You can’t go wrong with ordering their caramelized sweet potato bites. They’re moist, fluffy, and cooked so perfectly. Isn’t your mouth watering just thinking about it? And it doesn’t even end there. They’ve got cakes, tarts, Satsumaimo Karintou (薩摩芋かりんとう), deep-fried sweet potato fries coated in brown sugar, Imo Yōkan (芋ようかん), a jelly made from sweet potato paste, and purple sweet potato soft serve (摩芋ソフトクリーム; soft cream), which pairs well with the other stuff I mentioned earlier, if you love sweet potatoes as much as I do.
Tokiwa Shokudo (ときわ食堂)
When you’re in an area that’s popular with people of the older generation, you can’t get any more traditional than a restaurant that is loved by the very people who have literally experienced the good ol’ days and know it best. You won’t find any frills or gimmicks around here because their simple home-style dishes speak for themselves. Their reasonable prices, good portion sizes, quick service, and fresh, seasonal ingredients make eating here a definite no-brainer. Try their famous Ebi Furai (海老フライ; deep-fried shrimp) and see for yourself!
Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta (蔦)
Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta is the world’s first Michelin-starred ramen restaurant. Yes, you read that right. Don’t let the name mislead you. Confusion doesn’t end here, as the lunch reservation process in this 9-seater restaurant is notorious for being quite frustrating. They’re usually open from 11am to 6pm (they’re closed on Wednesdays), but it’s strongly advised for you to start lining up as early as 7am, especially during the weekend.
They give you a ticket with an allocated time slot and you have to give a 1000-yen cash deposit, which will be returned to you when you come back during your scheduled time slot. Be sure to arrive at least 5 minutes beforehand or risk losing your slot and 1000 yen. Tickets are handed out per person, by the way, so every single person who wants a ticket must line up on his or her own. Are you just as lost as I am? Consider a weekday dinner as it is more straightforward in the sense that you just have to line up for a seat like you would at a regular ramen restaurant.
Okay, enough about the process and let’s get to what actually matters. It is recommended to go for the most expensive dish, Charsiu Wonton Ajitama Shoyu Soba, to get a taste of a little bit of everything. For 1,700 yen (exclusive of tax), you get to sample their Charsiu (braised pork), wonton dumplings with silky wrappers that are as long as the noodles, sliced bamboo shoots, a perfectly-boiled egg, and chewy noodles, all soaking in their signature Shoyu (soy sauce) broth. Unlike the conventional pork-based ramen broths, theirs is made with chicken, Asari clams, herbs, soy sauce, and a hint of truffle. They use 3 different types of soy sauce with beans that have been aged for 2 years. The common consensus is that their ramen lives up to its reputation and is very much worth the hassle. Their rice bowls and soba are also definitely worth a try.
Have A Blast from the Past
Our grandparents or elders often reminisce and tell us about how times have changed and that things aren’t what they used to be anymore. Sugamo preserves this cherished past and not only takes us youngsters back to experience it ourselves, but also allows us to share a common point of interest with the old-timers in our lives.