Where Gray Is the New Black

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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

Shopkeeper Nobuko Kobayashi, 73, assists a customer at her undergarment shop in Tokyo's Sugamo district.

Sometimes a town moves only as fast as its escalators. From the subway station at Sugamo, a neighborhood of northwestern Tokyo's Toshima Ward, riders ascend single file to street level at the pace of treacle on a winter day — a pace that allows for eyes to adjust to the rising step and for a firm grip on both red rubber handrails. Here in "Grannies' Harajuku" (based on the name of a 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. The shoes are comfortable and the underwear is long. Busloads of grannies and gramps swarm the main street, called Jizo-dori, even on the windiest winter days, to pray for good health, shop for food and clothing, and socialize with their peers in an environment built catering just to them.

This is your grandmother's neighborhood, and hers is a growing demographic. Already today, more than 21% of Japan's population is aged above 65, and that number will rise to 36% by 2050. Those numbers are good news for retailers in Sugamo, where January 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 to a famous statue at Koganji Temple believed to cure their ills. With about 200 shops and two temples along Jizo-dori, overflowing with free food samples and women's wear, Sugamo appears to be pioneering retail techniques to the aged.

Five years ago, the local McDonald's menu listed french fries as simply "potato" or Filet-o-Fish as "fish hamburgers"; most are items now ordered by more familiar names and some, like the 100-yen cheese burger and sandwiches with steamed buns, are popular because they are cheap or soft. "Toasted buns are too hard for them," says manager Hayato Akasako. "They like the Filet-o-Fish and the shrimp burger." Akasako also says the elderly don't shy from trying new things. Upon ordering, some of them now present downloaded electronic coupons on the screens of their mobile phones, even if they occasionally don't know how to use them, he says.

The shuffling wave of older folks continues further down the street, past peddlers of hair nets, wigs and hair pieces, to a red "80" hanging above Echigoya, Jizo-dori's oldest store. The number refers to the years the kimono-retailer-turned-women's-clothing has been in business, and 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 exceeds about $100. Among the more popular items are "care pants" with zippers sewn into the legs. "It's for easy access when those with leg problems need to go to see the doctor," Tamura explains. "We sell a lot of these."

Another hot item in the stores of Sugamo is red underwear. The brightly colored undershirts and underpants are the coveted items of many a Japanese senior, says Miyoko Kaneko, 66, who traveled to Sugamo to pick up a few pairs at Maruji clothing store for herself and her friends back home in neighboring Saitama prefecture. "It's no good if it's not red," she says, as someone who wears them daily. "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 the real Harajuku, "not too many young guys come in here," he adds.

But the sake is also bought as an offering to any of Sugamo's two temples. The main one, Koganji, originally drew seniors to the area because it houses the Arai Kannon that, when washed and scrubbed by believers, is thought to cure illness. In the area surrounding the Kannon 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.