Toshima Ward is rife with zombies and familiar spirits. In the wee hours near the stationopolis of Ikebukuro, pale-faced university students, partied-out salarymen and a host of others wander the streets until the first trains arrive. These are Toshima’s innocuous shades; there are others more spine tingling.

Take the specters associated with the ironically dubbed Sunshine City. East of Ikebukuro Station, the complex includes Sunshine 60, Tokyo’s tallest skyscraper when erected in 1978 and still ranked in the top three. Sunshine 60 was built on the former site of Sugamo Prison, where political and religious dissenters sometimes perished, and seven accused World War II Class-A criminals including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo were executed.

Today, ear-popping elevators take you to the top of Sunshine 60 (no prize for guessing how many floors up) in about 35 seconds. From observation decks, you can see nearly everything except the tiny park below that encloses Sugamo Prison’s only commemorative marker, a stone carved with the words “Praying for eternal peace.”

Back down on the 10th floor is what’s reputed to be the world’s highest aquarium. The Sunshine International Aquarium’s highlights include seals, a giant ocean sunfish and a plethora of penguins. Special nighttime shows during Golden Week and an overnight summer program for children allow observations of nocturnal sea life. Luckily in this case, “sleeping with the fishes” has nothing to do with Sugamo Prison’s other infamous inmates, yakuza godfathers such as Yoshio Kodama.

Tokyo’s grandmothers, on the other hand, can be found scooping up deals in Sugamo proper, north of Ikebukuro. An extended shopping street known both as “Jizo dori” and “Granny’s Harajuku” makes the real Harajuku look like a ghost town by comparison, particularly on days with a “4” in them. Though the number four is usually a no-no, as the Japanese word, shi, is a homonym for the word “death,” auspicious days for visiting the jizo on this dori are 4, 14, and 24 on each month, and the May 24 festival draws a serious crowd.

Midway up the pedestrian-packed thoroughfare, lined with barrels of dried fish, racks of red underwear (increases health and vigor), traditional sweet shops, free samples of kelp tea, and elegant umbrellas sits Koganji Temple. The principal enshrined figure, Togenuki Jizo (Thorn-pulling Bodhisattva), is believed to remove pain and confers on the temple its popular name.

Lines of worshippers waiting at the nearby Arai Kannon statue snake around like those at Disneyland rides. Word is that if you wash the Kannon in the place that aches, or request a quick and dignified death, your prayers will be heard. As I stood in line, and accepted the gracious offer of a clean towel to perform ablutions — I had neglected to buy one at the entrance — strangers shared with me shy claims of miracles and mutual encouragement. Talk about “social security.”

The whole street has a 1950s atmosphere, where everyone seems to know everyone else and his dog, and the 1,000 yen shop (not 100 yen, mind you) suggests that old age has some rewards. But precisely where the street peters out — you sense it before you see it — a gravestone purveyor and an eerie fortune-teller’s storefront signal that the “other side” is never out of sight in Toshima.

In search of a group of five temples to the north of Jizo dori — like a doofus, I forgot my map — I wandered down an unpromising backstreet and found an eerie yard full of sculptures overgrown with grass. I was about to head home, but I noticed a demure wall sign reading: The Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory.

With the recent decline in Japan’s population — Toshima has fewer residents now than in 1935 — abandoned schools have been snapped up by NPO-organized arts groups, and this one, supported by the local community and The Japan Foundation among others, participates as a theatrical venue in the Tokyo International Arts Festival and offers outreach classes to children.

In the factory’s backyard, I found my five temples. One, Myogyoji, had a pull on me I couldn’t explain. Later I learned that when this temple was moved from its former site in Yotsuya in 1909, a famous entity came with it. Signs lead to the rear of the cemetery, past the bone-rattling sound of toba (wooden grave markers) in the wind. There at the end of the path is the resting (or restless) spot of Japan’s most renowned yurei (female ghost), Oiwa-sama.

The kabuki play “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” was apparently based on the actual 1636 case of Oiwa-sama, a woman murdered by her husband. The husband, hoping to exchange his frail wife for a younger, wealthy woman, poisoned Oiwa-sama. Her face became grossly disfigured, her hair fell out and she endured unspeakable violations before dying. Then, as now, she is believed to return from the beyond to exact bloody revenge on those who don’t respect her. Kabuki stars invariably visit her tomb before launching a performance of “Yotsuya Kaidan,” and my husband insists that I must go back to her grave before this gets published. I’m definitely going.

In the prestigious graveyard, Zoshigaya, visitors receive free maps to navigate the maze of stones and pay respects at monuments to authors Natsume Soseki and Kafu Nagai. Other luminaries include Motoko and Yoshikazu Hani, founders of nearby Jiyu Gakuen, one of Japan’s first alternative schools, the main hall of which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1921. Here also rests Koizumi Yakumo, or Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), whose famous collection of traditional Japanese ghost stories, “Kwaidan,” was published the year of his death.

Owls are said to be “lords of darkness” and Toshima may have the only museum in the country dedicated to owls. The Mimizuku (horned owl) Museum, inside Minami Ikebukuro Elementary School, displays more than 200 photos, sculptures and paintings of owls. Granted, the bird is an Ikebukuro icon (partly a pun on fukuro, which means owl), but the whole ward is feathered in Hedwigian statuettes. In Mejiro, I counted 13, and I wasn’t trying.

Small owls made of woven silver grass can be bought at Kishimojin, a temple dedicated to a cannibalistic she-demon fond of munching the children of others. When Buddha stole and hid Kishimojin’s youngest son, the demon recognized the agony she had caused others and transformed into the protectorate goddess of expectant mothers and children. Below a massive 600-year-old gingko tree on the temple grounds, the Kosodate Icho (child-raising tree), Masayo Uchiyama, like an incarnation of the kind Kishimojin, has been selling dagashi (cheap sweets) charmingly displayed in bug-boxes and old aquariums for nearly half a century.

In Somei Yoshino Sakura Kinen Park, the ward celebrates its claim as the birthplace of Japan’s most popular variety of cherry tree, the Somei Yoshino. There, under a full-blown display of the blossoms that symbolize untimely death, I met 67-year-old security guard Kaoru Higasa, who judges Toshima the “perfect place for elderly people.” Higasa often comes to the park to write poetry after finishing his work on the graveyard shift.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.


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