Japan is a fascinating country, by all accounts. It boasts a rich history, beautiful landscapes, amazing architecture and a vast and varied culture.
Now, everybody’s ideal trip is different. That’s what keeps us all traveling, sharing our own experiences and those of others. Japan is one of those places that can probably cater to just about everybody in that regard. There’s so much to see, such a wide range, that Japan has a USP for us all.
If you’re a history buff, like me, there are ancient castles, ruins and museums to explore that offer sights unlike any others on Earth. If you’re a technology enthusiast, you can head on over to Tokyo’s fabled Akihabara, nicknamed ‘Electric Town’ for its dizzying array of gadgets to check out and buy.
You like the hustle and bustle of a high-tech and super crowded city? Japan’s got you covered, and then some. You’d rather have a calm, peaceful experience in a quiet little town? That’s not a problem for visitors to Japan either. Next stop, Nagoro.
At first glance, Nagoro may seem to be nothing notable at all. It’s very sparsely populated, and equipped with only the basic village essentials. It’s become a unique tourist attraction all the same, though, thanks to one resident and her unique way of honouring the departed of the village. As you may have noticed, there’s something very unusual about most of the ‘people’ who live here.
Buckle up for this poignant, powerful series of photographs of life in Nagoro.
25 Gone, But Never Forgotten
Grief and loss are some of the most powerful and painful (yet sadly inevitable) emotions we’ll feel in our lifetimes. Across cultures and across time, people have developed different customs and practices as ways to cope.
Sometimes, these practices can make a tiny, otherwise insignificant village a bit of a tourist attraction. Nagoro is home to a population of life-sized dolls, which were largely created to honour past residents of this sleepy village. Whether they’ve passed away or simply moved away, you’ll probably still find ‘them’ here, somewhere in and around the village. There’s something incredibly powerful about this curious custom.
24 Still Just Watching The World Go By
You can think of Nagoro as a sort of gigantic doll’s village. It’s situated on Shikoku Island, in the Iya Valley, and is very remote. Its already-low population has been steadily declining, a problem faced by Japan in general. Way out in the sticks, though, Nagoro has a population of only around thirty people (as of August 2016)!
But that’s strictly humans, though. If you put these amazing dolls in the equation too, that number rises to around 380. That’s right, there are around 350 of these dolls spread in and around the village! How did they get here, though? Let’s take a look.
23 The Mother Of ‘Scarecrow Village’
How did realistic dolls come to outnumber Nagoro’s human residents? By over ten to one, at that? Well, they’re the work of local resident Tsukimi Ayano.
Ayano was born and raised in Nagoro, before moving to Osaka. There, she married and raised children, before returning to Nagoro decades later to care for her ailing father.
In her absence, the village’s population had dwindled from around 300 to just 30. She began with a scarecrow based on her father’s likeness, and according to National Geographic, it “looks so much like him that it prompted her neighbors to begin initiating conversations with it.”
And so Ayano’s purpose was clear.
22 Just As They’d Planned In Life
After her father’s passing, the artist found herself (and others) comforted by the doll and its likeness to him. Inspired by that concept, she took to making more and more. Not all of the dolls are made to honour somebody who has left this world or moved away, but that’s the underlying concept. That’s the idea that Nagoro has become famous for.
As you see here, Ayano outs great care into positioning her dolls. They will tend to be found in places that the person themselves would frequent while they were here. Working in the fields, perhaps; waiting for the bus, sitting in a favourite spot.
21 When The Last Student Left
The dolls of Nagoro are all the more fascinating because they represent every stage of our lives. It’s not just the elderly dolls, sitting in their familiar spots or ‘chatting’ with old friends.
The school near Ayano’s own house is now closed. There are no children in the village anymore, as the need for employment has sent the younger people away to the cities.
NPR reports that the school closed in 2012, but it isn’t abandoned. Instead, it’s home to (you guessed it) yet more of those famous Nagoro dolls. These ones were created and arranged to evoke memories of the school as the artist herself knew it: bustling and full of life.
20 Still Inspiring The Students
There’s something truly touching about this scene. Teachers truly are unappreciated, for the far-reaching role they have in our lives and their influence on our children. Just look at this guy, continuing to instruct and inspire even if he is stuffed with straw.
Here’s another interesting tidbit about the school’s dolls: in one classroom, there are just two ‘students.’ Ayano explained their super-cute backstory:
"These two little scarecrows, the children made those themselves during their home economics class,"she says."And then they put the clothes they wore back then on the figures before they left the school."
They were the school’s last two (human) residents.
19 Totally Transcendent
As a fan of all things off-kilter and just a little bit odd, I can totally see how there could be an uncomfortable vibe about this whole concept. I’ve probably seen the Child’s Play movies a couple too many times.
For the artist herself, though, there’s nothing morose about any of this. No thoughts of Chucky or any of that, either. Instead, she finds the creation, display and maintenance of her dolls to be a soothing and comforting process, explaining that:
18 The Lonely Fisherman
That’s the key to the whole concept, I feel. It’s about taking the positives from a bad situation, about focusing on the impact and lasting memories of people. Focusing on celebrating their lives. It’s not as bold, bright and colourful as Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos festival, but it’s a very similar idea at heart.
In a village that is increasingly becoming silent, Ayano yearns for the presence of others. To see familiar people in familiar places, such as this man fishing. Who could blame anybody for that? Perhaps he was based on somebody she once knew, from her childhood.
17 The Spirit Of The Children Lingers On
Speaking of Ayano’s childhood, that’s one thing that she’s probably keenest to capture with the dolls. As NPR explains, she’s almost seventy years old. This still makes her one of the youngest people in the village, which hammers home the point that the younger generation is mostly moving away in search of job opportunities.
Nagoro’s one and only schoolhouse, now forgotten and inhabited only by dolls, speaks volumes about that. In any small community, the laughing and noise of children playing adds character and flavour, and it’s a sad loss to this little village. What a forlorn shot this is.
16 Deeply Personal, Deeply Personalised
The truly remarkable thing about these dolls is just how detailed each individual piece is. As they tend to be based on real people, it’s all about ensuring that they’re recognisable as who they are/were. We saw this in the case of the last two children who graduated from the school, who gave their dolls their own clothing to wear. These are very personal pieces, after all, and it’s vital that they be recognisable.
Ayano claims to have made over 400 dolls, each as distinct as the last. Just look how many different defining elements this one has. The detail is fantastic.
15 A Labour Of Lasting Love
In Nagoro’s doll population, the artist has clearly found her calling. Her job is to honour people, which she does by creating and meticulously maintaining these dolls.
It’s not as easy as simply placing them in appropriate spots around the village and then moving on, after all. The dolls are vulnerable to the effects of weathering, and simply coming unstitched over time and needing repair.
As such, Posts From The Edge reports, “Each doll is regularly repaired to retain the neighbourly expressions that make each doll feel like a long-lost friend, and replaced every three years before they decay and fall apart at the seams.”
14 Catching Up With Old Friends
This next shot gives us some insight into how life in Nagoro used to be, when the town was busier. It wasn’t exactly Bondi-Beach-on-a-sunny-day crowded before, you understand, but the community was busier and closer.
Speaking of community, that’s exactly the kind of spirit that the artist is trying to convey with these installations. As you’ll see here, these dolls depict people of various ages, all sitting together. As Nagoro’s population has been diminished, these sorts of things have been lost, and it’s crucial to keep that spirit alive.
The dolls go a long way towards creating a friendly and welcoming vibe here, and that’s a real testament to Tsukimi’s work.
13 Keeping The Crucial Craft Alive
Of course, Nagoro’s unique features are more than enough of a selling point in and of themselves. Visitors come from all over Japan, and far beyond, to bask in the ambiance of the so-called ‘Scarecrow Village.’
There’s more to it than just that, though. You can also go right ahead and join in. As the village became more popular, the artist opened a workshop. Here, visitors can discuss the dolls, learn more about the process and try their hands at making one for themselves. If you’re an artistically-inclined traveller looking to get involved with a project that’s just a little unusual, this one’s for you.
12 Relics Of A Bygone Age
As we all know, the internet is one of the greatest and further-reaching creations in human history. We can carry pretty well the entire sum of human history and thought around in our smartphones, and that’s… well, a little frightening, really.
The internet has revolutionised our lives, but it’s also left our high streets in a bit of a mess. Every time I pass through my hometown, another few stores are boarded up or have changed hands yet again. These dolls, sat forlorn and silent outside a closed-down shop, are a sad commentary on that. It’s not just Nagoro’s population that’s in decline.
11 Business As Usual
Heck, let’s not get all glass-half-empty about it, though. As I say, the main intent of the dolls of Nagoro is to comfort, to inspire. When you’re coping with loss, it can be tough to feel somebody’s presence, to assure yourself that the person you loved is still with you. Tsukimi’s dolls serve that purpose perfectly, for herself and for her community.
Familiarity is a key aspect of that, which is why she goes to such lengths to customise each doll. Not only this, but also to place them in appropriate places and activities around the town. Just look at these ones; it’s odd how realistic these dolls are.
10 The Eternal Village
All this talk of bricks-and-mortar stores disappearing has got me feeling a little melancholy. There’s something to be said for doing all your holiday shopping (and your grocery shopping too, come to that) from right there on your couch, but it definitely comes at a cost. High street stores are really struggling.
It just goes to show that everything’s finite. Even these dolls need to be replaced every three years, as we’ve seen. For right now, though, there’s a beautiful timeless quality to them. It’s as though these four cheery villagers will be having this friendly, neighbourly conversation forever. It’s very sweet.
9 Here, There And Everywhere
So, yes. I find everything we’ve seen about Nagoro village’s dolls completely adorable and charming. You’re probably picking up on that vibe by now. At the same time, though I can definitely appreciate how some would have some major misgivings here.
There’s a fine line between uniquely charming and vaguely creepy. Where exactly that line is, I couldn’t possibly say. That’s for the individual to decide. The simple fact is, dolls are a super common horror trope, and a quiet, remote village full of them is not going to be to everyone’s taste.
We’re not talking about Mexico’s confronting Island of the Dolls, no, but still.
8 Just Doing Some Yard Work
If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Nagoro for yourself, you’ll know that those dolls get just about everywhere.
Some of them, as we’ve seen, are laid out as though they’re performing everyday tasks, like teaching in the school or working in the fields. This is darn hard work, though (just ask any teacher, they’ll soon tell you what’s up), and you can’t blame any of these dolls for wanting a little downtime.
As such, if you head off the beaten track and come across a dozing doll out there in the woods, don’t be alarmed. They’re just resting their eyes.
7 A Priceless Family Moment
Those brief moments of respite are something that we just don’t appreciate enough. In today’s super fast-paced world, it’s tough to find time to just pause and collect yourself. It’s vital, but tough.
There’s another important life lesson from the dolls of Nagoro. They’re representations of real people, and in looking at them, we sometimes see a reflection of some truths from our own lives.
Just look at these two here, all decked out for a fishing trip. It’s making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and not just because the child’s wellington boots are the cutest darn thing on the surface of the Earth.
6 There'll Be No Haggling With *This* Shopkeeper
As the name of Nagoro started to spread further afield, thanks to the tireless work of Tsukimi, it’s become more and more of a Tourist Attraction™. We all know what that means: more opportunities to sell things are in order.
Nagoro is not just about the dolls, you see. Souvenirs are available around the town, similar crafty items like pottery. Containers are provided for patrons to put their money into, because the shopkeeper him/herself isn’t really up to the task. They just sit there, smiling that newspaper-stuffed smile, much like most of the village’s residents. Let’s be honest, though, that’s what we’re here for.