For Henry Killackey, a well-traveled tourist from Los Angeles, Tokyo Sky Tree was the first place he wanted to visit upon arriving in Tokyo for the New Year’s holidays.

The communications tower, now going up in Sumida Ward, one of Tokyo’s traditional “shitamachi” districts, is the newest sightseeing spot in the capital. At well over 500 meters tall, it has already eclipsed Tokyo Tower, a 333-meter radio and TV transmission tower that was the country’s tallest structure for 52 years.

But once at the foot of the modern architectural feat, which is on track to reach 634 meters in March to be the world’s tallest stand-alone communications tower, Killackey and his wife, Liz, found little to do but take pictures of the gigantic steel structure in the cold wind.

“We couldn’t even find souvenirs,” the 50-year-old said on his way back to the hotel.

While several stores sell souvenirs in the area, the dearth of establishments catering to the growing number of tourists from across the country and even from overseas, is a common complaint heard in the area.

The shitamachi district, where small merchants, craftsmen and artisans have thrived for decades by plying their trade, is facing the need to adapt to the new environment, and do so quickly.

The Sky Tree project grew out of the need for a taller communications tower to provide digital terrestrial TV broadcasting services in and around Tokyo, now that skyscrapers that sprouted over the years made signal reception difficult in some areas.

Built at a cost of about ¥65 billion, the new tower is slated to open commercially in spring 2012, with a conical observatory providing sky-high revelers a 360-degree view, and the requisite dining experience.

A commercial complex at the foot of the tower is expected to have about 300 shops and restaurants, plus an aquarium and planetarium. It will also boast direct access to local trains connecting to Haneda and Narita airports.

The stakes are high for local communities.

Tobu Tower Skytree Co., the tower operator, predicts 5.4 million people will visit the tower in the first year of its opening, and 25 million will visit the complex every year.

Tourism and other activities associated with the project would generate economic benefits worth ¥47.3 billion annually for areas such as Sumida and Taito wards, according to research published in 2006.

But the money is likely to be generated after the tower opens commercially, said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, who wrote the research paper.

“What I had not anticipated when I did the projections,” he said, “is that people would flock to the tower well before it is completed.”

The strong public interest in Sky Tree was easily visible on a recent Sunday afternoon. Scores of people, young and old, families, couples and other groups were seen looking up at the soaring tower from alleys at its base.

“Sky Tree has been a hot topic, and my daughter and grandchildren in Shizuoka Prefecture said they wanted to see it,” said Kunihiro Naruse, a 65-year-old pensioner from Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture, who brought them to a designated area near the site to take photos.

Others are coming on group tours.

The increase in visitors eager to see the tower has led local merchants to display souvenirs and others to open eateries to cash in on the new business opportunities.

Check In, a restaurant bar that opened in July, is one of them. It offers an original brandy-based cocktail called The Sky Tree and 634-mm-long fried cakes, the latter priced at ¥634 each.

“The sweets have been selling well,” said Kota Kuramochi, 26, the bar manager.

Other local establishments have also come up with foods that conjure up images of the tower, such as 634-mm parfaits and tempura rice bowls with stacked-up shrimp fries.

Locals are worried, however, that their communities are changing too slowly to attract future visitors from the tower complex. They fear many coming on tour buses will satisfy all their sightseeing needs at the complex.

“We only have one more year to go. We must open up to attract tourists, both international and Japanese,” said Koji Imagawa, who sells souvenirs at his apparel shop minutes from the tower. “If we miss this opportunity, we will all be shuttered once and for all.”

This is a point well taken by the tower operator’s side.

“The tower isn’t a place where tourists would spend the whole day. They would spend half a day at best, including the surrounding area,” said Yoshihito Imamura, a public relations manager at Tobu Railway Co., the parent of Tobu Tower Skytree.

“That’s why it’s important to work together with the local communities to make this area attractive to tourists.”

Tourists are also pinning high hopes on Sky Tree.

Killackey, the American, says the tower has big potential because it is only a 1.5-km walk from Asakusa — a famed tourist spot.

“This place would be the No. 1 tourist place in five years,” he said, “depending on how they do it.”

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