In Toyosato, close to the old Nakasendō road through Ōmi, stands an austerely elegant building of the modern period. This is the old Toyosato Elementary School designed by the American missionary and architect, William Merrell Vories.
In 1937, the original elementary school was found to be too small for the growing population, and so Furukawa Tetsujirō, Senior Managing Director of Marubeni and a graduate of the school, stepped forward to fund construction of a new school building. The design was handled by architects Vories & Co., run by William Merrell Vories.
The magnificent school building made of whitewashed reinforced concrete, which was a rarity at that time, was variously dubbed “the white-walled palace” and “the leading elementary school of the East”. With the lavish use of state-of-the-art technology such as central heating for the comfort of the pupils, flush toilets, and extension telephones, construction costs came to 365,000 yen, ten times the budget of Toyosato at the time.
Although Vories eschewed ornamentation in general, the main structural elements are of pleasing proportion. The combination of wood and whitewashed concrete, with gentle bevels and flutings, achieves a classical elegance. The handrails of the stairs are decorated with bronze images depicting the Aesop allegory of the rabbit and tortoise, which besides being cute, offered a didactic message to the pupils. The originals were donated for armaments in WWII. An attractive circular fishpond and fountain graces the entrance.
The classrooms and staffroom are still much as they were when it was a school, with blackboards still marked with the timetable. The pupils’ wooden shoe boxes in the cloakroom are still there, and the assembly hall looks as though it’s just been vacated. All of this was slated for demolition, but a prolonged campaign by the residents ensured its preservation.
The elementary school has become something of an icon for the anime and cosplay crowd, thanks to the late-night animation K-On! which aired from the spring of 2009. It concerns a girl band at a fictional high school that resembles the school building. Consequently, many fans of the anime visit Toyosato, often dressed as the characters in the story. The local Chamber of Commerce established a committee to promote Toyosato’s association with the anime, and now there’s a K-On! Café in the school building where live music events are held. In the music room of the old school building, there are a lot of promotional goods and instruments related to K-On! brought and left as tribute by fans.
In September 2014, a 16-mm film containing images of the commemorative ceremony for the completion of the old school building was found by town officials in the once state-of-the-art science preparation room on the second floor of the school.
The school makes a good base for exploring Toyosato. It has a large carpark, the aforementioned café, and you can hire bicycles.
William Merrell Vories was not originally a resident of Ōmi. He was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1880. While at Colorado College, he had a vision of Christ which made him resolve to become a missio