Deep in the heart of the Iya Valley, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, lies a hidden
gem. The village of Nagoro is nestled between river and trees, along Route 439. Not many people drive this road, unless they are heading for the double vine bridges located ten minutes further on from the village.
It would be easy to pass through the little hamlet without noticing too much amiss, but look again and things may not be quite as they seem.
At first glance you might spot a few villagers dotted here and there, going about their daily lives – but upon further inspection you will note their stillness, and as you get closer, their simple faces… They are not people, but dolls – life size mannequins – and they are everywhere.
Nagoro – now also known as ‘Scarecrow Village’ – has a population of roughly thirty living humans, a severe drop from the 300+ of days past. This is a common phenomenon in rural Japan, and very apparent to us living in the heart of the Iya Valley where the depopulation is severe. The mountainside farming is a dying industry, all the younger generations having opted to relocate to the cities and larger towns where work is easier to find. Very few of them ever return to the country. The average age in the hamlets that surround us is easily 70+ (we bring it down considerably!), so natural progression means that these villages and the trades they were known for will soon die out.
Like many others, Ayanosan left Nagoro to experience life in the city. Unlike most, she returned. When her father fell ill, she came back to her hometown to care for
him, but was shocked at what she found; a deserted village. She settled back into rural living, and began to farm her land, however none of the seeds she planted grew. Thinking they were being eaten by birds, she made a life size scarecrow in the image of her father – I don’t actually know if the seeds then grew, but a new idea was born.
Ayanosan started to make more scarecrows out of straw and cloth. She painstakingly crafted faces and features for each one. She lovingly dressed them and placed them around Nagoro. Many represent people who once lived there, and you can spot them engaging in their favourite activities; a father fishes at the riverside with his daughter, children play in a cart, farmers tend to their crops… it is almost as if each one has a soul.
The village school lay unused, closed since 2012, for what use is a school without students to teach? Now, it is once more full of children – even if they are made of straw. The whole concept may seem a little creepy, an unusual tourist attraction, but more than that – it is a statement.
After making the first few dolls and placing them in plain sight, Ayanosan noticed that people would stop in Nagoro. They would take photos and wander around. Although only temporarily, there was more of a human presence in her hometown. It also brought the lack of living beings to the attention of the tourists, sometimes blissfully unaware of the issue of depopulation. Whatever angle you look at it from, it makes for an interesting stop when visiting Iya.
A short documentary was made by Fritz Schumann about Ayanosan and her dolls a few years ago – watch it below.