SUGAMO / 巣鴨
The Yamanote Line (山手線) is probably the most famous train line in Tokyo, simply because its huge fleet does a continual loop of the city allowing you to make connections north, south, east, and west from whatever point you happen to be at. Trains come every two minutes right throughout the day, with hundreds of thousands of people boarding and disembarking at major stations like Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Yet while the Yamanote is literally home to the three busiest stations in the world, there are also a few quieter stops that are happily content to sit anonymously, away from the hustle and bustle of their famous towering counterparts. One such station is Sugamo – an old-school area in the north that has firmly stuck to its roots, deciding not to embrace the modern architectural changes that have shaped the rest of city over the past 30 years.
Affectionately referred to as ‘Old Ladies Harajuku’ (Harajuku being where all the young fashionistas hang out), Sugamo’s famous jizō-dōri (地蔵通り) shopping street is filled with pensioners slowly shuffling between shops that seemingly cater just for them. If you’re looking for a new walking stick, a pair of ‘sensible’ shoes, or some rice crackers, this is most definitely the place to come. But scratch beneath the undeniably quaint surface of Sugamo’s surroundings, and you are left with the underlying question of what will happen to this place once all of its current residents pass on. Unlike Yanaka in east Tokyo – an area that is just as old but has also managed to attract younger crowds and boutique shops – Sugamo’s future, from my eyes at least, looks rather bleak. With Japan’s birth rate in decline, and its older generations dying out, some of these major shitamachi areas run the risk of suffering a similar fate over the next twenty years.