Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Warming to Sugamo’s venerable shopping street

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Gifting, and therefore shopping for gifts, seems part of the gestalt of winter. In Tokyo, though, retail wonderlands tend to be packed and pricey, full of ersatz Christmas music, harried customers and long lines. I opt instead for a low-key commercial street near Sugamo Station in Toshima Ward, known as Jizo-dori. Sugamo is often referred to as “Granny’s Harajuku,” and since I’ve got some elders on my list, I head there hoping to find a few age-appropriate presents.

In an arcade on the way to Jizo-dori, I find myself swept up in a virtual herd of grannies hauling wheeled shopping bags and moving with unified force into a Japanese sweets shop. I go with the flow and the stampede stops inside Senjo Monaka. Senjo Monaka’s specialties are monaka (delicate wafers cradling azuki bean jam fillings) and dorayaki (bean jam sandwiched between castella sponge cakes) made on site daily, hence the place is awash in the aroma of pancakes crisping on a griddle.

The women around me laugh and shout to one another, negotiating which of the shop’s treats to buy. Third-generation owner Emi Odomo, 57, oversees their orders while expert griddler Ichiro Toyoda, 69, flips cakes. Once the shop clientele thins a bit, Odomo sneaks me a dorayaki to taste. The steaming sweet pancakes pillow a chilled green pea jam, and the combination of textures and temperatures is divine. The shop has a small seating area, with free hot tea. “To sit and talk is a good thing,” Odomo says. “People these days think a cellphone is the whole world, but it’s not.”

I deftly stash my own phone in my coat pocket, nodding at her wisdom. I ask Odomo a bit about her business, which was established by her great-grandfather in 1937.

“The shape of our monaka,” she says, “is a hyōtan, or gourd. It symbolizes good fortune. Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a samurai hero, used to add a gourd to his battle flag each time he won a fight, so the shape now suggests victory.” Senjo Monaka, too, has won many prizes for its monaka over the years, Odomo tells me.

I buy a few boxes of the bite-size gourds (a box of 10 is ¥1,100), which come in five different varieties: chunky and smooth azuki, white bean paste, and beans with plum or black sesame seeds added. As Odomo wraps my boxes, I note the shop paper is printed with something like karuta (traditional Japanese playing cards).

“This was designed by my great-grandfather,” Odomo says. “Each card is an actual message we got from our customers.”

“I dropped my monaka and the dog gobbled it up,” reads one. “I invited guests for monaka, but my son grabbed one first,” laments another.

“I’ve often thought about modernizing the paper,” Odomo admits, “but thinking of my ancestors, I can’t. It would make me cry.”

This respect and love for elders echoes in my mind as I take Odomo’s advice and pop into nearby fruit stand Matsugishi. Overseen by siblings Eiko Ikemori, 48, and Katsuhisa Kishi, 43, the small store, in business for 60 years, offers a seasonal specialty: yellow quinces the size of footballs. “They are great for preventing colds,” Ikemori says, offering me a few slices she has soaked in lemon juice.

“Our fruit is first class, on a par with Sembikiya,” her brother adds, referring to the famous Ginza specialty shop.

Kishi and Ikemori have watched Jizo-dori over the decades. “It has always attracted travelers,” Ikemori says, “but recent media made it really popular. Now, many of the small shops that gave the area its character have closed.” My disappointment surely shows, because Ikemori and Kishi’s mom rushes from the back of the store and bundles some mikan into my bag, as though to say don’t give up on us.

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), what is now Jizo-dori was part of the Nakasendo, one of the five major roads that started at Nihonbashi and like spokes, spread out to important hubs throughout Japan. The Nakasendo was a crucial route through the country’s interior to Kyoto, and Sugamo was the first rest stop on its route.

Just near the entrance to Jizo-dori, at Shingon Temple Shinshoji, I stop to admire a huge bronze statue, one of the Edo Roku Jizo-son (the Six Jizo of Edo). In the early 1700s, priest Jizobo Shogen commissioned six Jizo (bodhisattva figures) to be placed at the starting points of Edo’s main roads. This is one of five that still exist (the others being in Shinkuju, Shinagawa, Koto and Taito wards).

Seated on his plinth of lotus leaves, the Edo Roku Jizo-son at Shinshoji is nearly 3½ meters in height, and his benevolent expression must have been a comfort to those striking out on foot for Kyoto centuries ago as it is to shoppers today. I can’t help but contrast this to what the local merchants’ union has set up on the other side of Jizo-dori, inside its own makeshift shrine: the rear end of the area’s mascot, a duck named Sugamon. A sign actually encourages visitors to stroke the duck’s soft butt, which many in fact do.

I demure, and wander off to see what’s for sale. There are lots of sembei and sweets shops, including a place with kintaro-ame, rolled and pulled candy in various designs, the most famous one depicting Heian Period samurai Sakata Kintoku, who as a boy wrestled with a bear and lived to tell about it.

Across the street, I follow swarm of visitors to the Soto sect Buddhist temple, Koganji. Here, the Togenuki Jizo (Thorn-pulling Bodhisattva), which is believed to have the power to pull pain from supplicants, is enshrined, and it is this figure that Jizo-dori was named after.

I join a line of locals to wash an Arai Kannon statue — little towels can be purchased for this purpose — to pray for relief to the areas washed. I scrub Kannon’s knees for a good friend and hit the right shoulder where my camera usually rides, just for good measure.

On the temple grounds, there are several commercial kiosks of interest. At one, Harada Mimikaki, I watch artisan Akio Shirahama soften strips of aged smoked bamboo over a gas burner, then meticulously carve them into, of all things, earpicks. A customer from outside of Tokyo patiently waits while Shirahama’s trained hands craft him a wax catcher tailored for his ears.

Nearby, at Matsumiya Shoten, small lathed-turned wooden gourds are filled with shichimi (a condiment mixture of seven spices, including black sesame seeds, raw and roasted chilli peppers, ground dried mikan skins, Japanese sansho pepper, hemp seeds, and poppy seeds). The specialty of the shichimi sold here, I learn, is local ingredients, processed by the company with a history of 105 years. You can request extra scoops of whatever flavors you prefer to dominate, too. I snag two containers (¥1,500 each) filled with shichimi (¥300 each) to spice up my gift list.

The street’s 1950s vibe seems to suit the slow pace of customers, most of whom appear more intent on talking than on take-home purchases. I pass shops stocked with clothing from bygone eras, some truly appalling Christmas sweater vests, traditional mompei (work pants) and a store specializing in wheelie shopping carts. There’s even the senior version of a ¥100 shop, where everything costs ¥1,000 instead.

At one shop called Uo, I eye the inago tsukudani (crickets simmered in soy sauce). Owner Michinori Shibasaki tells me most people shake the legs off the crickets before cooking them, but he likes the legs on for their extra crunch. I’m in the mood for lunch, but it’s not going to be cricket. Shibasaki laughs, and whispers that his son, Tomoichiro, has set up a tiny restaurant in the back. The place is perfectly hidden, but all the locals know about it. I sit down to a generous feast of sashimi, fish tempura and delicious side dishes served by what must be the nicest family on the planet, in the company of jovial elders. The bill? ¥1,000.

Out on the street again, I finally locate Jizo-dori’s raciest product, the infamous akapantsu, or red undies meant to bring good fortune and extra warmth to one’s energy center. At Maruji, you can nab special Sugamo red power panties, or ones with your animal zodiac embroidered on them. In the heat of the moment, I buy a few pairs (¥895) for gifts. A store clerk kindly warns me that wearing them at night might be too exciting; I’ll need to note that on the gift card.

As the commercial area and the daylight trickles to an end, I make a last shopping stop at Kamakura Palette. Here, elegant umbrellas can be had in traditional Japanese washi patterns of gold and flowers, bright rainbows, or watercolor gradations such as morning glory blossoms. I like the latter (¥2,160 each).

Where Jizo-dori ends, I discover the Sugamo Koshinzuka, a shrine mentioned in guidebooks published in the days of Edo. Sarutahiko Okami is enshrined here, guarded by stone monkeys with knowing smiles and red power jackets, as well as smaller carvings of the three wise simians (Iwazaru, Kikazaru and Mizaru). To the ancient folk god Sarurahiko Okami, I offer a prayer that Jizo-dori never loses its distinct charm.