Sugamo district, Tokyo, Japan

by AFP/Patrice Novotny, Jan 5, 2009 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Tokyo, December 28, 2008 - Boisterous weekend crowds flock to Tokyo's Sugamo district where, unlike areas popular with hip young things, shoppers are grey-haired, short-sighted and often hard of hearing.

As Japan's population ages, retailers in this northern suburb of the capital are focusing on the interests and needs of the elderly.

The shops lining the main street here are benefiting from the rapid greying of Japan, where one in five of the country's 127 million people is 65 or older.

And that market will keep growing as the baby-boom generation enter their 60s.

Haruko Sugisawa, working at the Sugamoen bakery, tells customers the pastries are all healthy.

"Our cakes don't have any chemicals and little sugar," she said.

Nearby the tiny Tokiwa Shokudo restaurant boasting "homemade" food is doing a roaring trade as manager Yuki Saito says: "Our customers are almost always older men who are alone."

Sugamo's main commercial attraction is its clothing stores, a must-visit for elderly women who come for the area's signature fashion statement -- rose red underwear.

In the Asian medical tradition, red undergarments help heat the body. And while some may doubt there is more than a psychological effect, red undergarments have become a top gift for Japanese in their 60s.

"For the past 15 years, our old lady customers have been asking us for red things," said Hideji Kudo, who runs the Maruji clothing store.

The store offers a complete collection of clothing in the same red -- from lingerie to trousers and even hats.

"People in their 80s buy apparel that's obviously for elderly people. But people in their 60s want clothes that make them look young -- and those are more difficult to design," Kudo said.

He said that newly retired people who are still in good health, and suddenly have plenty of free time, will sometimes travel up to 100 kilometres (60 miles) to shop at his store.

The initial draw to the neighbourhood is the Kogan-ji temple, which boasts a statue of the folk deity Togenuki -- said to cure the ills of anyone who gives it a scrub.

"I have pain in the spine, so I want to find relief by washing Togenuki," said Shizuko, a woman in her 70s from Yokohama.

While ill people have flocked to the temple since the aftermath of World War II, Sugamo began to grow in popularity 30 years ago when a newspaper baptised it "Harajuku for Grannies" -- an old people's version of the youth fashion area.

"Since then, more and more elderly people have been coming here," said Shigeru Yamanaka, 82, who owns the neighbourhood's Suzukiya shoe store.

The crowds are particularly big on the fourth, 14th and 24th of each month, numbers regarded as auspicious.

The seniors come here alone, with friends or with lovers. According to urban legend, Sugamo is also a hot spot for elderly sexual encounters with the pay-by-the-hour love hotels doing brisk business.

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