Sky’s the Limit
Tokyo’s unlikely new money tree
I have always been amazed at the propensity of the Japanese to travel long distances en masse merely to visit new buildings. But with the newly-renovated Tokyo Station and completed Tokyo Skytree, I can finally share their enthusiasm.
As part of my work, I frequently visit new projects throughout Japan and the rest of the world. I never could imagine paying to join a tour group merely to visit an office tower like the Marunouchi Building or Central Japan International Airport, as thousands of Japanese did upon their completion a few years ago. But if you haven’t been to Marunouchi or Asakusa lately, I strongly recommend a visit.
After a multi-year renovation, which was both an eyesore and an inconvenience when it was underway, Tokyo Station has re-opened in a much improved state, both inside and out. The gleaming red brick exterior is an architectural gem, and features gorgeous domes above the north and south exits on the Marunouchi side. The Tokyo Station Hotel offers a touch of historic elegance in its modern setting.
In the first few weeks after reopening, it was difficult to stroll around the station amid the hordes of gawkers. Even weeks later, the heavy foot traffic around the station has not only boosted rail passenger numbers venturing to the shops and restaurants in the station, but also visitors to the neighboring Maru Building and Shin-Maru Building.
When JR East was state-owned, this kind of project would have been unimaginable. But the company transformed into a private company and has established itself as a first-class retail developer. For those who remember how dull and inconvenient Tokyo Station was before JR was privatized, the variety of shops and restaurants in the station today is remarkable.
Given JR East’s recent successes in turning various train stations into lifestyle hubs, as well as its first hit outside of a station with Yurakucho Lumine, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the refurbished Tokyo Station. I was completely amazed, however, with Tobu Railway’s work on Tokyo Skytree.
In the instance of Skytree, the need for a new tower was triggered by the shift to digital television. Such chances don’t come along often. Unlike Tokyo Tower, which has had virtually no economic impact on its neighborhood during its existence of more than 50 years, Skytree is a dynamo.
This new project is in the process of transforming a wide swath of land in what was a sleepy, forgotten part of Tokyo with little hope of growth. Located about two kilometers east of Asakusa, the 634-meter high Skytree is the world’s tallest tower and includes an observation deck, shopping mall, offices, exhibition space, and even an aquarium and a theater, among other facilities.
When I visited the nearby Tobu headquarters a number of years ago, before the company had won the bid for Skytree, I couldn’t imagine any possible use for the vacant land in the area. Yet, Skytree attracted its one millionth visitor only 72 days after opening on May 22 this year. This flow of people will spur ongoing development in the area and lead to the building of new homes, offices and commercial facilities. This amounts to a huge boost for Asakusa, Tokyo’s main entertainment district in the past, which had fallen on hard times in recent decades.
Aside from the millions of people that will travel specifically to visit Skytree every year, the new train stations in the area, including a line that whisks travelers to Narita Airport in less than an hour, will be an economic driver. Tobu’s Asakusa Station, home to a small branch of Matsuya Department Store, has been beautifully restored and is attracting customers in droves.
The success of Sky Tree shows that even with a declining population, there are still opportunities in Tokyo’s real estate market. Given the Japanese government’s substantial debt load, the private sector can no longer rely on public works spending to create new development opportunities.