Nestled away in the small northern Ibaraki town of Daigo is a relic from the early Meiji period. Uwaoka Elementary School welcomed its first students on April 20, 1879, and closed its doors behind the final 36 on March 31, 2001. At its busiest, the school had 320 students. With schools in rural areas closing and merging at an increasingly rapid rate, this isn’t a unique story. Today there are many abandoned school buildings all over Japan, haunted by haikyo (urban exploration) enthusiasts. However, when the students of Uwaoka moved to other schools, the local community got together and formed the Uwaoka Shō Atochi Hozon no Kai (The Uwaoka Elementary Site Preservation Committee), to maintain Uwaoka Elementary School and its grounds in an effort to revitalize the area and enrich local culture. Thanks to their hard work, the school is a moment frozen in time – furniture, books, and posters fill the rooms and hallways just as students and staff left them 13 years ago. Luckily, the buildings were not damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Mr. Kikuchi, a member of the preservation committee and graduate of Uwaoka Elementary class of ’47, met us in the grounds in front of the school for a tour. As we chose to visit in midwinter, we missed out on the chance to see the numerous cherry blossom trees around the school in full bloom, but if you are planning to visit Daigo in spring they are definitely worth a look. In the gardens that frame the front of the building stands a strange statue of what appears to be a white horse – Mr. Kikuchi explained that it was most likely made by the students. A photo inside the building shows that there were once two statues – one fell over and broke, so now the remaining statue stands alone.
The oldest building that now remains is the main building, constructed in 1911. A second building was added behind it in 1937, and additional classrooms were added on to the main building in 1963. As you step through the front doors and remove your shoes, the first thing you will notice is a display on the wall – photos of every graduating class since 1914. It is interesting to see how the student numbers swell in the 50s and 60s then steadily drop over the years to the final class of 6 students, reflecting Japan’s falling birthrate.
The classrooms look as though they are still in use – books line the shelves and tables and chairs stand in neat lines facing the blackboard. Posters and set squares fill the walls, and a potted plant sits upon the teacher’s table. You can almost hear the footsteps and voices that surely filled the halls of the school in days gone by. The staffroom is still equipped with old telephones and a kerosene heater with a big brass kettle on top, and the principal’s office is full of trophies and certificates.
As you walk along the hallways, you will notice a number of beautiful framed sketches of students, all signed with the same name – Hideki Komuro. Mr. Kikuchi explained that he was school principal during Uwaoka’s final years. The sketches are surrounded by posters about health and safety and bulletin boards covered in student’s work.
Uwaoka Elementary is registered with the Japan Film Commission, and as a result has been used as a filming location numerous times, most famously for the NHK family drama Ohisama, set in Nagano Prefecture during WWII. You can also see it in NTV’s Saigo no Nightingale, TBS’ Home Drama!, Bokutachi no Sensō, and Satōkibi-batake no Uta, TV Tokyo’s Otoko-tachi no Fūkei and Kono Yubi Tomare, and NHK’s Yume Miru Budō and Junjō Kirari. It features in the film Ore wa Kimi no Tame ni Koso Shini ni Iku, and in several commercials, including one for Google Nexus 7. Inside one of the classrooms most often used as a location, the walls are covered in framed photos taken during filming and posters about Ohisama. According to Mr. Kikuchi, Uwaoka Elementary will be used again for filming in the near future.
The back building houses a spacious assembly hall that was once two classrooms – as there was nowhere for the whole school to meet, the wall between them was removed to make one large room, which is the one you can see in the Google Nexus ad. High on the wall is a line of photographs of school principals, and the words to the Uwaoka School Song are printed in the wood above the door.
Uwaoka has become a popular site to visit among haikyo enthusiasts, and there are several bloggers who have photographed and written about the site, though it has been described as a little too well preserved by those in search of creepy, dusty, abandoned buildings. Although it is usually closed to the public, it occasionally opens its doors to visitors and hosts events such as pottery and art classes. In 2012, between October and December, a temporary restaurant called Satoyama Restaurant was opened inside the school, run by renowned chef Yoshimi Hidaka. It celebrated local delicacies, including Okukuji shamo (wild fowl), shimi konnyaku (konnyaku served cold), Hitachi Aki Soba, and a variety of locally grown veggies, reinventing them in an Italian style. It was a huge success, and will hopefully open again in the future.
The preservation committee has done a great service to Ibaraki by caring for this piece of Daigo’s history. Next time you watch a Japanese drama or film, keep an eye out for Uwaoka Elementary!