By Rei Sasaki / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer OTSU — On a Sunday in late May, the voice of a woman singing could be heard emanating from the third floor of a building that used to house an elementary school in Shiga Prefecture, accompanied to the bouncy sounds of a band.
The song was an original from the popular anime series “Keion!,” which expressed the feelings of one of the characters for her little sister.
The singer’s location was not random. The old buildings once used for the Toyosato Elementary School in the town of the same name are believed to be the model for the high school depicted in “Keion!”
Often written as “K-On!,” the series chronicles the leisurely daily lives of high school girls in the school’s pop music club.
Even though the last episode was broadcast nearly eight years ago, fans of the anime still make pilgrimages to the old Toyosato school buildings. They often dress up as their favorite characters and hold impromptu jam sessions.
It has not been limited to hard-core fans. A group of tourists walking on the historic Nakasendo main road that passes in front of the building were drawn in by the music and joined the gathering, clapping their hands in time to the beat.
Singing the anime song was Serina Tanaka, a 26-year-old cosplayer from Otsu. “It’s nice that I can sing at the same place shown in the scenes from the anime,” she said with a smile.
Preserved by residents’ will
“Keion!” went on the air in April 2009 before ending in September 2010.
Although the production company never revealed if a specific school was used as a model for scenes depicted in the anime, the coincidences with the Toyosato buildings are striking.
For example, the external shot of the main building is very similar, and the base of the handrail in the stairway is adorned with the same statue of a rabbit and a turtle.
Seeing these common points, fans of the anime began sharing rumors that the high school may have been modeled after the old Toyosato school buildings.
The buildings on the campus were designed by American architect William Merrell Vories (1880-1964), and comprised a main building, a library and a lecture hall.
The buildings were constructed in 1937, funded by donations from businesspeople from the town. They are characterized by chalk-white walls and interiors in a modern architectural style.
In the latter half of the 1990s, the buildings were showing wear and tear, and there were plans to tear them down and put up new ones. But town residents wanted to preserve the buildings and took action, including filing a lawsuit, and the structures were saved.
In 2002, the buildings ceased to be used as an elementary school. After construction work to ensure they met earthquake-resistance standards, the buildings started a new life in May 2009 as a complex housing a library and other facilities.
Because the reopening coincided with the start of the anime series, hundreds of fans swarmed to the site.
Suddenly this small town, which barely had any tourists to speak of, was inundated with fans taking photos so they could compare the old school buildings with those depicted in the show.
“I had heard there were rumors about the buildings, but it was really a shock to see [fans] actually come here,” said Junichiro Shimizu, 46, an official of the town government’s planning and promotion section.
Responding to fans
When the town government surveyed “Keion!” fans on what they want to do there, many responded that they want to “hang out and chat over tea like the characters do.” Soon after, a cafe serving juice, pancakes and other items was opened at the site.
There were other suggestions. “Because there is not much to see, I want to display my extra goods [related to the anime],” and “I want to play music in the music room.”
Taking into consideration the desires of the fans, the location was transformed little by little.
“We had planned to ask fans to stop doing such things if it caused any problems,” Shimizu said. “But everyone has been well behaved. In addition, they treat the buildings with care.”
The fans have held such events as birthday parties for the characters and sales of fanzines. Such activities have not just been anime-related. On one occasion, fans got together to hold an event simply to clean the inside of the buildings.
A group of fans who jammed together in the music room formed a band, calling it “Toyosato Keion-bu,” and brought in their own amplifiers and a drum set.
The band not only gets together on their days off, but also helps out in the managing of pop music events for high school students in the lecture hall.
Kosuke Kikukawa, 35, a company employee from Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture, said: “Because we have a common bond in songs from ‘Keion!,’ it is easy to jam with people, even if I just met them for the first time. Anytime I come here, I know there will be a comrade.”
Built with the help of donations and overcoming a threat to its very existence through the efforts of local residents, this former elementary school transformed into hallowed grounds for an anime due to the enthusiasm of its fans.
From the seeds of local residents’ efforts spanning 80 years, a totally unexpected flower has bloomed in this town of about 7,000.
The complex of ferro-concrete school buildings, which were unique at the time of construction, has been called “a chalk-white palace of education.” In 2013, the buildings were registered as a national tangible cultural asset. The site is a 10-minute walk from Toyosato Station of Ohmi Railway Co. Transfer to the Ohmi line at JR Hikone Station; it takes about 20 minutes to get to Toyosato Station. By car, it is about a 20-minute drive from the Hikone Interchange of the Meishin Expressway, or about 10 minutes from the Kotosanzan Smart Interchange. The buildings are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. all year, except during the New Year holiday period. The cafe is generally open on Sundays. For more information, call the Toyosato Tourism Association at (0749) 35-3737.Speech