Sometimes a town moves only as fast as its escalators. From the subway station at Sugamo, a neighborhood in northwestern Tokyo's Toshima ward, riders ascend single file to street level at the speed of treacle on a winter day a pace that allows for feeble eyes to adjust to the rising step and for a firm grip on both red rubber handrails. Here in "Grannies' Harajuku" (an ironic reference to a nearby district famous for its nubile trendsetters and fashion pranksters), slow is the operative word. Heads in the crowd are gray and silver, not black, pink or red. Glasses are for seeing, not for being seen. Shoes are comfortable and underwear is long. Even when the weather is windy and bitterly cold, busloads of seniors swarm the main street, called Jizo-dori, to pray for good health at two popular temples, to shop for food and clothing, and to socialize with their peers in an environment catering just to them.
This is your grandmother's neighborhood, and it's getting crowded. More than 21% of Japan's population is at least 65 years old, a demographic group that is expected to swell to 36% by 2050. This trend is good news for retailers in Sugamo, where Jan. 24 is the equivalent of America's Friday after Thanksgiving. As many as 80,000 visitors flock to the area to pay their New Year's respects at Koganji Temple home of a famous statue of the Buddhist demigod Togenuki Jizo, protector of the weak and browse in some 200 stores overflowing with free food samples and women's wear.
On this day especially, Sugamo's shopkeepers are pioneers in an increasingly important retailing speciality: selling to seniors. Five years ago, the local McDonald's menu listed french fries as simply "potato" and Filet-O-Fish as "fish hamburgers." Customers today are more familiar with the fare. Big Macs are on offer. So are 100-yen (92¢) cheeseburgers and sandwiches with steamed buns, popular because they are cheap and soft. "Toasted buns are too hard for them," explains manager Hayato Akasako. "They like the Filet-O-Fish and the shrimp burger." Akasako says the elderly don't necessarily bridle at the new and unfamiliar. Some pay for their meals with electronic coupons downloaded to their mobile phones, even if they occasionally need to be coached in how to use them, he says.
The shuffling wave continues down Jizo-dori, past peddlers of hair nets, wigs and hairpieces, to a red "80" hanging above Echigoya, the street's oldest store. The number refers to the years the kimono seller turned women's-clothing retailer has been in business. Mr. Tamura has worked the store for 30 of them. He says that styles on the floor are now skewed for a "younger look," because women in their 60s and 70s are more fashionable than those born during the Taisho period (1912-26). Female shoppers aren't necessarily looking for deals, says Tamura, but nothing in the store sells for more than about $100. Among the more popular items are "care pants" with zippers sewn into the legs. "It's for easy access when people with leg problems need to go to see the doctor," Tamura explains. "We sell a lot of these."
Another hot item in Sugamo shops is red underwear. The brightly colored undershirts and underpants are coveted by many a Japanese senior, says Miyoko Kaneko, 66, who traveled from neighboring Saitama prefecture to pick up a few pairs for herself and her friends back home. "It's no good if it's not red," she says with the authority of someone who wears such things every day. "It keeps you warmer." As do the copious amounts of Japanese sake, beer and wine that stand out near the entrance to the local 7-11. One employee, Daisuke Fukumoto, says that retired men often drink outside while seated in Sugamo's plentiful rest areas, or take a tipple with them for the ride home. Unlike in the real Harajuku, "not too many young guys come in here," he adds.
Sake is also purchased as an offering at Koganji Temple. There, a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy, is said to bring good health to those who wash it. In the area surrounding the statue are two signs: one directs line formation, the other trumpets a nearby defibrillator device. Both signs are there to put Sugamo's visitors at ease.