February 21, 2020

Backyard Tourism Vol. 4

Tokyo's historic Sugamo area is often referred to colloquially as "grandma's Harajuku" due to the fact that many elderly shop there.

The entrance to Tokyo's Jizo Dori in the Sugamo area

Welcome back to yet another installment of Backyard Tourism! As with all the other articles in this series, I am going to try to show how just about anywhere in Japan can be appealing to overseas guests if they are marketed properly. As long time readers are aware, I started this collection back in 2019 after a particularly frustrating meeting with a local government’s communications team. Frankly put, I am just sick of out of touch old men mucking things up when it comes to attracting foreign visitors. Backyard Tourism is therefore my attempt to prove to these ancient skeletons that digital marketing and proper storytelling can transform a place into one worth visiting.

Anyway, my indignation now thoroughly vented, let’s get on with the show. In this essay, we are going to take a look at the area of Sugamo. This quaint town is located smack dab in the middle of Tokyo. Famous for its lengthy shopping street, Sugamo is well visited by the over-sixty crowd. Because of this peculiarity, Sugamo is often dubbed as the “Harajuku for Grandmas.” As you might imagine with a nickname like that, many of the stores that you’ll find in Sugamo cater to the elderly. In fact, the area’s most infamous offering is its red underwear. According to Chinese medicine, these undergarments are said to help stimulate energy centers responsible for circulation.

Now, you are probably wondering why I would recommend somewhere like Sugamo to a bunch of young and vibrant chaps like yourselves. Here you need to understand that this slice of Tokyo is a lot more than just a geriatric playground for Japanese pensioners. As I’ll attempt to show in the “What to See” section, there’s a lot that Sugamo has to offer even if you aren’t encroaching on the golden years of your life. While it may not be as flashy as the legendary Shibuya Scramble crossing, Sugamo’s quaint charm easily makes it worth considering for your next visit to Tokyo.

Getting to Sugamo

People transit at Ikebukuro Station en route to Sugamo in Tokyo

Let’s pause for a quick moment to cover some key logistics so that you, the reader, can find your way to Sugamo. At least when compared to some of the other far flung places that I’ve covered on this blog, the trek to this friendly town is as simple as it gets. All you need to do is take the central Yamanote Line to Sugamo Station. Alternatively, you can also opt to ride the Mita Line too. As always, just refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate which of the two is more efficient for you.

By the way, note that Sugamo’s location in northern Tokyo puts it quite close to the major hub of Ikebukuro. In fact, if you take the Yamanote Line, you’ll only need to go a total of two stops. This means that a trip to Sugamo is an excellent add-on to any Ikebukuro itineraries. For example, you could easily pay a visit to the Pokemon Center in Sunshine City and thereafter contrast it with some chill time in Sugamo.

What to See in Sugamo

Sugamo’s Shinsho-ji temple complex is home to one of six massive Jizo statues in Tokyo

There are a fair bit of attractions in Sugamo that each have their own allures. That said though, the real draw of Sugamo is just savoring the vibe as you stroll about this charming part of the world’s biggest megalopolis. In the interest of keeping this article as short as possible, I am going to opt to introduce what I think are the spots of interest in a bullet point format. This way, you can pick and choose at your own leisure which you’d like to see. To make your life easier, I’ll also include some Google Map links.

  • Jizo Dori
    This 800-meter-long part of Sugamo is the district’s most famous spot. When people talk about the area being “Grandma’s Harajuku,” this is the sliver of Sugamo that they are referring to. On Jizo dori, you’ll find a number of shops that hawk and assortment of red hued clothing. Of course, you’ll find plenty of stores selling the area’s iconic red panties too. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you snag yourselves a pair, you might want to give the area’s shio-daifuku treat a try. Made from sweet and slightly salty mochi that’s filled with red bean paste, this is a snack that you need to sample while in Sugamo!
  • Shinsho-ji
    Located at the beginning of the Jizo dori shopping street, this temple is home to one of Tokyo’s six massive Jizo statues. All of these Buddhist effigies were erected back during the Edo period (1603–1868) meaning that they are hundreds of years old. Likely, Shinsho-ji’s statue (pictured above) is where the Jizo dori shopping street got its moniker. Before pursuing the many shops that dot Sugamo’s central artery, be sure to pop into Shinsho-ji to see the huge Jizo statue in person!
  • Kogan-ji
    This relatively small Buddhist temple complex can be found halfway down Jizo dori. Though tiny in stature when compared to some of the more massive compounds that can be found all across Japan, Kogan-ji is actually the reason for Sugamo’s popularity with the elderly. The temple houses a statue of Kanno, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, which is thought to help heal ailments. Everyday, many seniors line up to touch the part of the statue that corresponds to where they are feeling pain.

Before moving on, I need to reiterate that Sugamo is an area made for strolling. If you intend to whizz through this part of town in a hurry, you’re going to miss out on what makes it so attractive in the first place. Instead of approaching Sugamo as a list of places to visit, I suggest that you tour the area with an explorative curiosity instead. After all, it’s the slower, more old-fashioned pace of life that makes Sugamo what it is.

Attractions Near Sugamo

Located near Sugamo, Tokyo’s Rikugi-en is one of the best gardens in the city

If you’re going to visit Sugamo, I highly, highly suggest that you also hit up Rikugi-en. This traditional Japanese garden is located only a stone’s throw away from the Jizo dori shopping street and can be easily reached on foot. Often considered to be Tokyo’s most beautiful landscape, this garden dates from around the early 1700s and was constructed for the fifth Tokugawa shogun. The grounds are an excellent example of Edo period (1603–1868) aesthetics and incorporate a number of manmade hills and forested regions. Moreover, all of these areas are interconnected by a network of trails.

While Rikugi-en is absolutely stunning all year round, the gardens are at their best during fall when the autumn leaves are at their peak. Usually, the operating hours are also temporarily extended for nightime illuminations during this period too. Visiting during cherry blossom season instead? Fret not. Rikugi-en also has a similar event going on in the spring as well for you to enjoy. Note that admission to Rikugi-en is only 300 yen so it would certainly behoove you to pay the garden a visit even if you can’t catch either of the evening light ups.