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Empty classroom used to raise puffer fish

TENKAWA, Japan >> The government of Tenkawa village in Nara Prefecture is making use of a classroom in a shuttered elementary school to cultivate expensive tiger puffer fish, with plans to ship them out this fall. The saltwater fish are on menus at hot spring inns in the village and are being eyed as a draw for tourists.

Inside a former computer classroom of a school that closed 14 years ago, 130 puffer fish swim in two tanks. The water temperature is kept at about 68 degrees, and the puffer fish are raised year-round.

Normally, it takes two to three years for the fish to reach a shipping size of 14 inches and about 2 pounds. But at the facility, the process can be shortened to 12 to 18 months. Slightly alkaline tap water with the same salinity as brackish water — 0.9% — is said to be good for growth.

The poison of the puffer fish, created from its diet of shellfish and starfish, is drastically reduced through an alternative diet, and they are virtually nontoxic.

Tenkawa is known as the starting point for climbing the World Heritage site Mt. Omine. It’s also a great place to beat the summer heat, and the leaves changing in the fall are another a huge draw for tourists. The shortage of visitors in winter, however, has become a problem. Because the area’s cuisine is limited to wild boar, deer, river fish and wild vegetables, the saltwater puffer fish has garnered attention.

The village is adopting a method of aquaculture used at Hida Ocean Science Laboratory, a fish-farming company based in the city of Hida in landlocked Gifu Prefecture. The company also cultivates tiger puffer fish. After considering a plan to build a greenhouse to start the venture, Tenkawa decided on the school, a cheaper option that allowed for easier temperature control. Start- up cost was about $52,000.

Yuki Shimonishi, 24, a college student who has been studying fisheries, is in charge of breeding.

“If we can pave the way for the cultivation of puffer fish and establish the technology, we want to try cultivating other fish,” he said.

A group of 16 people participated in a tasting event in February. The fish was prepared as sashimi, parboiled and cooked in hot pot.

“Our biggest goal is the vitalization of tourism and employment by establishing the Tenkawa brand of puffer fish,” said Mayor Shigetaka Kurumatani.

Yukio Imanishi, a member of the village assembly who runs a grocery store and handles puffer fish, said of the meal, “It’s sweeter and chewier than I thought.”

“The only selling point in winter was our hot pot made with wild boar meat, but if served together (with tiger puffer fish), it would be a huge hit,” said Tatsuji Kubo, who runs an inn in Dorogawa Onsen, a hot springs community.

The village government plans to start mass producing the fish in the fall. That will begin with a shipment of fish slated to arrive in September, with the addition of 550 young fish in May. A full-scale facility in Tenkawa next year is also being considered.

If all goes well, the village will start shipping its product outside the village.

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