Sugamo: Grandma's Harajuku
Sugamo, meaning ‘Duck Nest’, is an area located north of central Tokyo, and it is famously known as Grandma’s Harajuku. Harajuku is of course the trendy fashion mecca of youth culture for the wacky, the animated, the bizarre and the uber cute. Sugamo’s shopping street, Jizo-dori, which can be said to be the counterpart to Harajuku’s Takeshita-dori, is where the mature gals flock to hang out and have fun.
The easiest access to Sugamo is either by JR Yamanote Line or Mita Subway Line. Cross the street from the station heading about 200 meters north, you will see the grand arcade sign of Jizo-dori Shopping Street.
Sugamo retains the old shitamachi (downtown) feel of traditional Japan. Jizo-dori is a straight street of about 800 meters long, running between Sugamo and Koshinzuka tram station.
Jizos, the beloved bodhisattva deities in Japan, are the protectors of travellers children and saviors of the lost souls. Although are ready to become fully enlightened and reach Buddha status, a bodhisattva waits to oversee all of the other souls on Earth (and hell) saved and become enlightened first. There are several jizos worshipped around the area, most notably the looming 3.45meter jizo statue of Shinshoji Temple, located just outside the entrance of Jizo-dori, and the popular Koganji Temple, more commonly known as Togenuki Jizo, along the shopping street.
Togenuki stands for thorn (illness) pulling, and the temple is known to promote longevity, curative effects and relief from pain. You can purchase a charm at the temple for your own cure. Another popular feature within the Toganji complex is the Arai Kannon. Kannon is the bodhisattva of mercy and ‘arai’ means to wash. People wait in long queues to pour water over the kannon and wipe parts of the statue corresponding to the ailing parts of their bodies using a white cloth.
Towards the very end of the shopping street by the Koshinzuka tram station, there is a charming little Shinto shrine Sugamo Sarutahiko Koshindo with a pair of guardian monkeys seated on foundations with the carvings of the three wise monkeys. These monkeys depict the wisdom of “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”.
Now, turning our attention to fashion, the Jizo-dori is crammed with small shops selling everything from comfortable loose garments, jewelry, wigs, colorful zori sandals, to reading glasses, and the prices are usually a bargain. There are more street vendors and a flea market on auspicious days of the month which are the 4th, 14th and 24th. One cannot help but notice the stacked pile of red panties on display. Aka-pan, as this red underwear is called, is the must-have lingerie of the grandmas. It is believed that the color of red promotes good luck, protection, health and longevity. Are you wondering what to get for your grandma’s next birthday present?
Finally, the delicacies of Jizo-dori will surely thrill even the most curious and jaded taste buds. A popular traditional sweet is called shio daifuku, which is a sweet azuki bean paste wrapped in soft, slightly salted mochi (sticky rice cake) skin. There are rows of shops selling other variety of sweets and snacks, such as yokan (azuki bean paste jelly), sweet potato tarts, dango (skewered rice flour dumplings grilled and commonly dipped in sweet soy sauce), matcha smoothies, senbei (rice crackers), inari sushi (vinegar flavored rice stuffed in deep fried tofu pouches), osekihan (auspicious sticky rice cooked with azuki beans)and ice cream with flavor options of golden sesame seed & milk or black sesame seed & soymilk. Totally spoilt for choice.
I would recommend eating lunch at Konaya（古奈屋), a curry udon (thick white flour noodles) specialty joint. We Japanese just love our own version of curry, cooked in stewed gravy style served over rice, but udon is a common alternative. I ordered my udon bowl with shrimp tempura, which is playfully named on the menu as Tenshi no Hane (angel wings) Tempura. We certainly like to be creative with expressions. The shrimp is served unshelled with beady eyes intact, and I was advised that it is prepared in such a way that you are able to eat the whole thing from head to tail. The head is filled with ‘miso’ , which is considered to be the most flavorful part of the shrimp. I am normally squeamish about eating heads but following the advice, I did make the attempt to eat much of the whole thing, save the eyes. It was crunchy and delicious. The soup was also exquisite, with a delicate balance of spices and a bit of milk added to mellow the taste. I easily finished the soup to the last drop and found at the bottom of the ceramic bowl the word “Arigato”, a simple reminder that after all the prayers and offerings given to gods and deities, gratitude is the key to happiness and well being.
3-37-1 Sugamo, Toshima-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 11:00 – 16:30 hours
※Located next to Togenuki Jizo