TOKYO - A record-high 55 "antenna shops" aimed at promoting speciality products from other regions of Japan are now operating in Tokyo, including several new ones in shitamachi traditional areas.
According to the Japan Center for Regional Development, antenna shops had been concentrated in prestigious locations such as the Ginza district, but many have recently opened in shitamachi areas in the wake of the opening of Tokyo Skytree.
An official of the foundation said, "Because rent in prime locations in central Tokyo is high, shitamachi areas may start attracting more attention."
Tochigi Prefecture's antenna shop, Tochimaru Shop, opened last May inside Tokyo Solamachi, a commercial complex next to Tokyo Skytree in Sumida Ward, Tokyo.
The antenna shop sells more than 1,000 kinds of local products, including Utsunomiya gyoza dumplings, Tochiotome strawberries and dairy products from Nasu Kogen highland.
The shop also provides many pamphlets for potential tourists to the region. Since its opening, the shop has received about 1.74 million visitors.
An official in charge of tourism affairs of the Tochigi prefectural government said, "Initially, we thought about opening the shop in such places as Ginza or Yurakucho."
But the prefectural government chose shitamachi because Tokyo Skytree attracts a huge number of visitors and the location is "psychologically close" to the prefecture. Tobu Railway Co.'s Tokyo Skytree Line is located near the tower and connects Tokyo Skytree Station with the prefecture's famous cities such as Utsunomiya and Nikko.
The official said: "Sales have been good. We feel the business is doing well."
The city government of Namegata, Ibaraki Prefecture, also opened an antenna shop, Namegata City Gallery, in two locations in Sumida and Taito wards close to Tokyo Skytree in June last year.
An official in charge of the shop said: "It seemed unlikely that a new shop in central Tokyo could attract enough customers to justify paying such high rent. So we ruled out that option from the start."
The shops mainly sell about 30 kinds of vegetables, such as tomatoes, lotus roots and shallots, but the real purpose of such antenna shops is to distribute information.
The official said: "We provide information about agricultural experiences and lifestyles in rural areas so people will visit our city, which is suffering from depopulation.
"There is a special type of human connection particular to shitamachi. We've appreciated feeling welcome to participate in local events."
In Tokyo, seven new antenna shops run by local governments opened last year alone, reaching the highest number ever recorded at 55.
Among them, 24 of the shops experienced sales in excess of 100 million yen in fiscal 2011.
Hokkaido's antenna shop, Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza in Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ward, and Okinawa Prefecture's Ginza Washita Shop in Ginza, Chuo Ward, are extremely popular. Their annual sales exceed 700 million yen each.
In recent years, many antenna shops have tried to add special features, such as opening restaurants inside, in addition to promoting local specialty goods.
Hiroshima seeks differentiation
Last July, the Hiroshima prefectural government opened an antenna shop on the basement to the third floors of a building in the Ginza district.
The first floor sells products and distributes information, and the other three floors contain various types of restaurants: Japanese in the basement, okonomiyaki pancakes on the second floor and Italian on the third.
In the restaurants, visitors can enjoy dishes featuring the prefecture's local specialities harvested from the Inland Sea, including sea bream and oysters.
The building's rent costs about 150 million yen each year.
Shohei Murakami, 27, manager of the antenna shop, said: "Our aim was to reshape [customers'] images of our local cuisine, so we made the shop sophisticated. As our objective is to establish a Hiroshima brand, we didn't consider any location other than Ginza."
In its first seven months in operation, sales reached about 260 million yen, and Murakami said the goal of annual sales of 500 million yen will be achieved with one more push.
Chizuru Hatada, an adviser at the Japan Center for Regional Development, said, "Antenna shops will continue to diversify."
Local governments and private companies run antenna shops, which are located outside the areas where municipalities' or firms' headquarters are established. The aim of such shops is to lure visitors from urban areas.
According to the development center, the word "antenna" means that the shops not only distribute information but also collect data on consumers' needs and trends.
Most of such facilities run by local governments used to be located in Kokusai Kanko Kaikan, a building in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, and served mainly as tourist information centers.
However, since the 1990s, many antenna shops have opened in such locations as the Ginza and Shinjuku districts, where consumer-oriented promotions can be more effective.