A former elementary school building in a sparsely populated area in Kochi Prefecture is thriving as an aquarium, with its cumulative visitors topping 100,000 as of Tuesday, about six months after its opening.

Closed as a schoolhouse 12 years ago, the three-story building in the Pacific Ocean city of Muroto was transformed into an aquarium with an investment totaling about ¥500 million from the municipal government and other sources.

Located in the country’s fifth-least populated city with just 13,800 people, the local government had projected just 40,000 people a year would visit the attraction.

The aquarium is now drawing attention from across the country as a successful example of utilizing a school site that was closed due to depopulation as a way to revive communities.

The facility is home to about 100 kinds of sea creatures, most caught and provided by the local fishermen.

At the top of the staircase beyond the reception desk, the hallway is lined with glass display tanks housing fish such as sea bream and moray eels. Display tanks are also installed in former classrooms.

A former sink for hand-washing is now a popular spot where visitors can touch sea cucumbers and starfish. On a recent day, a child enjoying the sea creatures commented on how “squishy” they felt.

In addition, large sea turtles and sharks are kept in a 25-meter outdoor swimming pool.

Besides the sea life, the site itself is also popular as a former schoolhouse. Some former classrooms contain small desks and chairs. In the former science laboratory, a model showing the human anatomy and fish preserved in formalin are on display.

Some visitors read books in the library or played the piano. Rinka Moriki, 11, of Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, played shogi with three family members in one of the rooms.

“I want a school like this,” she said.

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