August 6, 2018
At present, Japan has an aging population and declining birthrate problem. Therefore, the government has been closing about 500 schools a year. Rather than let these buildings go to waste, the closed schools are being revamped into new places such as welfare facilities, hotels, community centers and so on. The closed school sites are attractive plots of land in Kyoto due to it being a crowded city that sits in a basin. The densely populated situation in the city center means that any large spaces are far and few between. Plus, the school buildings themselves have historical value.
There are 3 main advantages of using old school buildings. First, the ample space can be used effectively, for example, holding seminars in the classrooms and enjoying sports in the gymnasium or outdoor ground. Second, by using existing facilities, new ventures can significantly decrease their costs. Finally, the site of a former school is designated as cultural property as a historic building, so they should be maintained as such. The Kyoto Art Center and Comic Museum in Kyoto are both housed on old school sites. On the other hand, there are demerits too. These old schools need repair work which means they are not always easy to use as a welfare facility or for social gatherings. They also need a lot of money to look after them. As explained, using these sites has various problems which need to be considered carefully.
Currently, even in the center of Kyoto, there are 10 sites where elementary schools used to be. These buildings have been turned into libraries, hospitals, homes for the elderly, NPO offices, museums, cafés and spaces for volunteer activities. Kyoto International Manga Museum is a famous museum for overseas visitors. Inside there is a café, shop, exhibition room and memorial hall about the old elementary school. Before this site was used as a museum, it used to be Tatsuike Elementary School. The wooden floors and stairs faced of stone and tiles still remain. The floor creaks under your feet when you step on it, giving sweet memories of times gone by but in a modern setting. Moreover, visitors can read various comics and books in the surroundings of an old school. In one of the buildings, there is still the principal’s office. You can see the main terrace by the playground from the window in this office.
Kyoto Art Center used to be Meirin Elementary School. You can see the design of floats that were used for traditional feasts in Kyoto in front of the building. There is a large tatami mat -156 square yards- which adds to the traditional Japanese atmosphere. This facility also has a library, cafe and workspace for art. The management of the facility wanted to revive Kyoto, so they established the center in the old school. In 2008, there was some resistance to use the site as a cultural property, but this school was used carefully for a long time by the people in the neighborhood. Even now, a lot of people go there to learn and see the art, drink something and catch up.
The Department of Administration in Kyoto City Hall has beautifully renovated these old elementary schools into new facilities with thoughtful consideration of the local community. Elementary school buildings create fond memories for many children and adults, so it is important that the new facilities do not destroy old memories.
Future of old schools
Finally, let’s take a look at some future plans for reusing old school sites. Until now, old schools in Kyoto have been transformed into new facilities through a careful renovation process that does not break up the existing buildings, creating spaces for bustling communities and thriving cultural exchange. Planners care about the thoughts of the local community more than anything else and intend to continue this way in the future. They have to observe the rules made by the city. For example, stores that are built inside of these old schools must be local business’ that have a link to Kyoto’s traditions. As a result, local people who have affection for the old school buildings agree to the new utilization plans. As an example, there is the case of Rissei Elementary School. It is located in Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto and closed in 1993. This school will be renovated by 2020 and opened as a new complex that includes a hotel, café, library, resident committee meeting space among others with the cooperation of the city, local self-governing associations and real estate companies. Furthermore, a similar cultural complex will be opened in 2021 at the site of Shirakawa Elementary School in Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. In this complex, planners intend to build shops that exhibit and sell Kyoto’s traditional crafts, a garden where local people can feel free to gather, and a hotel where guests can experience Kyoto’s culture. You will be able to see a lot more renovated buildings with new cultural complexes that protect the old school buildings. The purpose of the old schools can live on through these reconstruction projects.