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Aquariums remodeled from old schools proving popular with tourists

Hammerhead sharks and set turtles are seen swimming in a 25-meter swimming pool at Muroto Haiko Aquarium in Muroto, Kochi Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the aquarium)

MUROTO, Kochi -- Aquariums created by remodeling former schools are enjoying high popularity across the nation.

One such aquarium, the Muroto Haiko (abolished school) Aquarium, was opened at the defunct Shiina Elementary School in Muroto in the western Japan prefecture of Kochi in April 2018, after the school was shutdown in 2006. The school building was remodeled into the aquarium at a cost of some 500 million yen paid by the municipal government.

"I'm glad we can see children's smiles," said Motoki Wakatsuki, 43, who heads the aquarium, which is operated by the Sea Turtle Association of Japan based in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, western Japan.

Wakatsuki, who belongs to the association, has been conducting ecological surveys on sea turtles around Muroto since 2003. He helped establish the aquarium at the request of the Muroto Municipal Government, which was exploring the possibility of how to use the abolished school's buildings.

About 20 water tanks of various sizes were installed in the classrooms of the three-story structure while seawater was poured into the school's swimming pool from a nearby fishing port.

On display are sea turtles that were caught in fixed fishing nets that were set off Muroto as well as more than 1,000 fish and other marine creatures of about 80 species, including Japanese amberjacks, mackerels, rays and moray eels.

Local fishermen are supporting the aquarium. They regularly notify aquarium staff when they catch fish suitable for display saying, "We've caught a shark" or "we can give you a sea turtle." They then provide fish that can't be sold and rare marine creatures to the aquarium free of charge.

"'Different types of fish frequently join the aquarium so visitors can enjoy the diversity of sea creatures on display here," says a smiling Wakatsuki.

Information on the aquarium set up at the defunct school has spread through word of mouth since its founding because of its uniqueness, although there are no "stars" such as dolphins and seals at the aquarium. In late October, the total number of visitors surpassed 100,000, far above the estimate of 40,000 visitors a year.

Water containers were placed inside vaulting boxes and wide sinks along the school corridors for washing hands have also been turned into tanks where visitors can touch sea cucumbers and starfish. Skeletal preparations and bodies of sea creatures preserved in formalin are on display in the former science classroom.

"We'd like visitors to feel nostalgic at the school situated in a fishing area," said Wakatsuki.

Meanwhile, there is another unique aquarium in Susami in the western Japan prefecture of Wakayama with a population of some 4,000. The Susami Crustacean Aquarium was established in the former Esumi Junior High School's gymnasium in 2015 after the school was relocated to another area in 2011. The aquarium specializes in crustaceans and keeps about 170 species such as crawfish and horseshoe crabs.

The aquarium was initially established at a building owned by the prefectural government in 1999, displaying crustaceans caught during the fishing of shrimp, which is the main industry for the town. However, due to the aging of the building, the aquarium was relocated to the former school near the Kisei Expressway.

As the aquarium is situated side-by-side with a popular roadside station, the number of visitors has increased.

"The aquarium is proud of its good location and a wide diversity of species," says Atsushi Hirai, director of the aquarium.

According to a survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, 6,811 schools were closed across the country from the 2002 to 2015 academic years, and 20 percent of them have been left as they are because local bodies have failed to redevelop the land of these schools.

"The use of an abolished school building is efficient, and their uniqueness can draw public attention. By holding special events, we'd like to attract more visitors," Hirai added.

(Japanese original by Keisuke Umeda, Lifestyle News Department)

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