The neighborhood I was assigned to explore and observe was Sugamo, commonly known as the shopping district for the elderly, or “Harajuku for Grannies”. The Sugamo Prison where war criminals were held during the US Occupation after WWII was located here until it was dismantled in 1971. The neighborhood is largely residential, with some commercial areas.
When I arrived, I quickly saw that the area lived up to its nickname. I saw many middle-aged and elderly people walking around and riding bikes, and very few young people, children, or salarymen.
After walking around a bit, I found the main shopping street. It was wider than other shopping streets in Tokyo that I have seen. The stores catered to the elderly demographic, selling tea, pastries, and comfortable, modest clothes. Signs for automatic defibrillators were displayed. The pace was very slow, and the street was very quiet. Most of the independently owned shops had no customers at around 3 in the afternoon. I soon noticed that I was the only foreigner in this part of the neighborhood. While my appearance causes me to stick out as a foreigner in Tokyo, Japanese people didn’t seem to really notice or care in busier areas such as Shinjuku. In Sugamo, however, I noticed that people would look at me with a puzzled expression. It may have been in part due to my age, but more likely it was due to me being white. I have not seen Sugamo mentioned in any tourism books or websites, and it certainly does not cater to foreigners, so many people must have been confused as to why I was there.
I walked further down the street to look for a place to sit, when I came across the Koganji Buddhist temple. Next to the temple was a statue of a woman. People were rinsing the statue down with water from a nearby fountain, and some focused on certain areas of the statue’s body. After doing some research online, I found that the statue was actually a buddhist Jizou statue. The water in the fountain is said to heal all ills, so if you feel pain in one part of your body, rubbing the statue in that corresponding spot will relieve pain. Many older people were standing in line to pray and rinse the statue. It was interesting to watch people interact with the statue. It seemed to be almost a daily routine for some, who passed through quickly. Other people spent more time rubbing the statue and praying. There was a shaded area that seemed to accommodate long lines, leading me to believe that the statue is very popular among the residents of the neighborhood.
The street was very flat and wide. Scooters were parked outside of some shops, but many people still walked or rode bikes, which I found as a contrast to America. There were many bookstores and bakeries, and workers in the stores stood outside and called out to passerby. Very few stores were popular chains, and it was hard to find even a Family Mart on the street. The shops were run by older people as well. Restaurants were sparse, and I didn’t see a single bar on the street. Stores for scooters, conservative, non-trendy clothing, and other items not usually found on more busy Tokyo streets were common. Some stores sold bright red underwear, which is said to bring good luck to people over 60. Many of the buildings were only two stories and seemed old. It seemed more common for hair salons or apartments to be located on the second floor of a building. No construction was going on, and the neighborhood was not gentrified in any way. It seemed like the main shopping street had been that way for several decades.
It crossed my mind that, in the future, there could be more neighborhoods like Sugamo as Japan’s population continues to age. Soon, there will be even more elderly people who will need to be catered to, and just one neighborhood of shops will not be enough. I felt a little bit out of place when I visited the neighborhood, but I didn’t feel unwelcome in any way. It was refreshing to see a part of actual daily life in the city without any stores catering to tourists, and to see the difference in people my grandmother’s age in the United States and in Japan, where I feel they are more accommodated.