CHIBA - Hota Elementary School in Kyonan, Chiba Prefecture, shut down in 2014, but the building is enjoying new life as a Michi no Eki roadside rest area.
The facility, in the southwestern part of the Boso Peninsula, is named Michi no Eki Hota Shogakko in honour of the school, where generations of local children were educated. With some of its charms as a school still intact, it is attracting many tourists, including during this year's Golden Week holiday period.
Michi no Eki are rest areas along ordinary roads. They generally are also places that provide local information and enhance regional co-operation. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry registers the facilities after municipality heads and others apply for the registration.
As of April 2017, there were 1,117 Michi no Eki facilities across the nation, but few use old school buildings.
Hota Elementary School opened in 1888, and over 600 students attended there at its peak. As the number of students dropped to just over 70 due to depopulation in the town of Kyonan, the school ended its 126-year history in 2014 and integrated with another school.
The town government decided to use the closed school as a roadside rest facility because the location, being close to an expressway exit, is convenient for transportation. The town hoped to make it a place for selling local products and providing food and drink, as well as a place to promote interactions between locals and visitors from urban areas.
"We want to cherish the history of the school as an educational facility and make it a place where people who meet there can learn from each other and help each other grow," Kyonan Mayor Harukazu Shiraishi said in a newsletter published when the roadside rest facility opened.
Michi no Eki Hota Shogakko houses multiple restaurants on the first floor of the old school and accommodations in former classrooms on the second floor. The former gym currently serves as a place for selling local specialties. The building for teachers is used as a bathing facility.
The town government invited public proposals for the design of the roadside rest facility, and adopted one by a consortium represented by a Waseda University professor. The facility thus transcends its original concept with novel designs by university students.
"Calculated from various data, about 600,000 people were estimated to have visited here last fiscal year, although the population of the town is a little over 8,000," said Katsuya Otsuka, the manager of the roadside station who also identifies himself as the "principal" of the facility. "Not only the number of visitors, but also sales have greatly exceeded our initial predictions. What matters next is how the facility functions. We want the town residents to be more involved in the facility, and we want to make it a core facility to invigorate Kyonan town."