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Friday, May 3, 2002

Vacated banks seeing new tenants

Shops, eateries flock to ex-branches' prime sites as rents fall


Staff writer

At an intersection in Tokyo's Nihonbashi financial district, a wholesale supermarket with a bright yellow sign and outdoor fruit bins draws the curious eyes of people passing by.

News photo
Pedestrians pass an outlet of the Hanamasa wholesale supermarket chain at a busy intersection in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.

One recent afternoon, the Hanamasa outlet was crowded with restaurant chefs browsing shelves of frozen meat and vegetables.

"The food here is really cheap," said Yasushi Fujioka, owner of a local restaurant who visits the store four or five days a week. "The other day, there was even someone from a vegetable store coming to buy daikon."

The store opened in June 2000 on a site formerly rented by a regional bank. Hiroshi Ono, president of the store chain that specializes in providing restaurants and bars with meat and other foods in bulk, said he had long dreamed of opening outlets in central Tokyo, but the rent had been too high.

Not anymore. Over the last two years, Hanamasa has opened 16 outlets in the most prestigious locations in Tokyo, including Ginza, Nihonbashi and Kojimachi. Bank branches sat at three of the sites.

The company now has 32 outlets in Tokyo's 23 wards and eight others in Chiba, Kanagawa, Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures.

Hanamasa is among a crop of companies that, thanks to declining land prices and an ongoing rush by merging banks to shut down overlapping branches, have secured a foothold in prime Tokyo locations.

Hordes of other businesses -- from convenience stores to bookstores to restaurant chains -- have also made advances recently.

News photo
In what was formerly a bank vault, customers are served "soba" buckwheat noodles at the Ueno outlet of the Takadaya restaurant chain in Taito Ward, Tokyo.

According to the Japanese Bankers Association, the number of branches of city banks, which have realigned roughly into four megabank groups in the last 2 1/2 years, has been steadily declining.

As of Sept. 30, the number of domestic city bank branches stood at 2,408, down 233 from March 1999.

At Hanamasa's Nihonbashi-Takaracho outlet, about 60 percent to 70 percent of the store's sales are to small and midsize restaurants in the neighborhood.

The store normally gets crowded between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., when restaurant workers take a break after the lunch hour and prepare for dinner, company officials said.

After dusk, however, different shoppers visit the store, which is open 24 hours.

"Late into the night, we see businessmen drop by on their way home after drinking," a clerk at the store said. "They squeeze steaks into their briefcases, saying it makes a big difference (when they face their wives) at home."

On weekends, when the area is quiet, the store bustles as individual customers come by car and buy food in bulk, she said.

Seven-Eleven Japan Co., the nation's biggest convenience store chain, with 9,060 outlets across Japan, also sees business opportunities from bank branch closures.

The chain plans to open 900 new outlets in 31 prefectures during the current business year through February, some at former bank sites, spokesman Hidetoshi Akiyama said.

Kinko's Japan is another business recently expanding in the Tokyo area. It now has 31 shops in Tokyo and Yokohama, of which eight are located where banks and brokerages once stood.

Misako Takabayashi, marketing director at Kinko's Japan, said bank branches are conveniently located near train stations, intersections and on the first floor of buildings facing big streets, for example.

"It's not like we are purposefully going after former bank branches. (But) we have more choices now," she said.

Some businesses that have moved into former bank premises retain part of the former interiors, giving visitors a glimpse into the inside workings of heavy-security banks.

Tasco System Co., a Sapporo-based restaurant chain, opened a Takadaya "soba" buckwheat noodle eatery in Tokyo's Ueno district in July 2000, taking over a former branch of Yasuda Trust & Banking Co.

The bank housed two vaults -- a main one in the basement and a smaller one on the first floor. Both have been renovated into eating areas, but the underground space maintains much of its old self, including thick metal door and hundreds of safe deposit boxes.

Tasco System officials said the company managed to keep the renovation cost down because it left parts of the vaults unchanged.

"Oh, it used to be a vault?" asked a surprised middle-aged man who had lunch recently at the Ueno restaurant. "Maybe it will bring me good luck."

As banks continue to streamline operations, more branches are expected to disappear in the coming years.

The changes in the urban landscape excite Hanamasa's Ono.

"Much of the metropolis used to be dead silent on the weekends, since the areas were occupied by banks," Ono said. "Now Tokyo is rejuvenating, with more residents coming back and more outlets of Hanamasa, Starbucks and Kinko's opening up."



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