Take a stroll through Scarecrow Village, a tiny town in the Japanese countryside where life-sized dolls have replaced a lost community

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In Japan, small-town life is dead.

As the nation’s birth rate dwindles and young people flee the countryside in search of better opportunities, rural communities are shrinking fast.

As these lost villages have an ageing population, social care, mobility and loneliness have become major concerns across modern Japan.

But in the tiny village of Nogoro – nestled deep in the Iya Valley, on the luscious island of Shikoku – a local artist is tackling the issue head-on.

She’s given her community new purpose, and created an oddball attraction that’s bringing more people to the village than ever before.

Welcome to Nagoro: Scarecrow Village.

Living dolls

A short strip of road flanked by fields and abandoned workshops, Nagoro is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet most tourists breeze through on their way to the ancient Oku-Iya Kazurabashi rope bridges.

But while other towns on Shikoku’s Route 439 feel dead and deserted, Nagoro bustles with energy.

Friendly faces peer from every doorway, workers diligently go about their business, and every bus stop has a line of commuters steeling themselves for the day ahead.

But all these residents are life-sized dolls, earning Nagoro its sinister nickname.

The dolls were created by a local artist, Ayano Tsukimi, who lived in the region as a child.

On returning to Nagoro from Osaka in the early 2000s to care for her ailing father, Tsukimi discovered the population had shrunk from 300 people to just over 30. Only the elderly and infirm were left behind.

When her father died, Tsukimi tried growing flowers and vegetables to occupy her mind and develop a new hobby. But her plants failed to grow.

Concerned that birds were eating her seeds, Tsukimi made a scarecrow in her father’s likeness and placed it in her garden.

Then inspiration struck.

In the following years, Tsukimi – now in her late 60s – created over 400 life-size dolls, at least 350 of which she placed around Nagoro to repopulate the village, and the rest on roads leading into town.

Many of the dolls Tsukimi made were based on her memories of former villagers, and brought those who’d died or settled in far flung places back to their hometown.

Other dolls Tsukimi created were new, imaginary citizens, many of whom were the children she made to fill the empty classrooms of the local school that closed its doors in 2012 after the final two students graduated.

Soon, a village that was bereft of life saw colour, cheer and personality warming the streets, and word began to spread about this strange town in the mountains.

Joining the tourist trail

After Tsukimi’s creations were celebrated in local media and on national television, Nagoro became an essential stop on the Iya Valley tourist trail that runs from Nishi-Iya in the west to Kyojo in the east.

Delighted that so many strangers were dropping in to say hello, Tsukimi set up a workshop on the edge of town.

Here residents come together to design dolls, get busy with a needle, and rejuvenate crafting skills that for many had lain dormant for decades.

Today, visiting the workshop is a highlight of any trip to the Iya Valley. Tsukimi and her fellow artists offer tourists a mug of green tea, a tour of their latest works, and a wooden plaque featuring a print of two of Nagoro’s fabric villagers.

In return, all you’re expected to do is sign the visitor book and tell others of the fun you had visiting this remote and fascinating village.

The road to Scarecrow Village

I first heard about Nagoro when searching for an offbeat experience that would take me out of Tokyo and deep into the Japanese countryside.

As I’m drawn to the macabre, the tales of Nagoro I read online captured my imagination. I thought I was in for a similar experience to Mexico’s creepy Island of the Dolls.

But Nagoro isn’t eerie or sinister. Instead, like the whole of the Iya Valley, Nagoro is peaceful and welcoming – an atmosphere that’s enhanced by the dolls that grin benevolently as you stroll through the village.

What makes Mexico’s Island of the Dolls terrifying is how nature has taken over, and transformed once-cute toys into half-melted, sun-bleached, nightmarish chunks of plastic.

By contrast, the dolls in Nagoro are well-loved and beautifully maintained.

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.

Some visitors have reported feeling uneasy in Nagoro as it’s eerily quiet, and there isn’t a sound aside from birds singing and the roar of a nearby river.

Others find a handful of scarecrows that have been battered by the elements disturbing, and recoil from dolls that continue to grin despite being covered in a layer of moss and cobwebs.

A few tourists are even troubled by the blank stare of the button eyes worn by some dolls, which coldly stare right through you and seem to contemplate matters beyond our ken.

But I found Nagoro a joy to explore. It wasn’t the chilling experience I was hoping for, but it was no less thrilling.

After visiting the workshop, meeting Tsukimi and spending a couple of hours taking photos of the villagers – no permissions needed for street photography in Nagoro! – I felt energised, enriched and privileged to have seen such a remote and curious place.

I adore Japan. But Scarecrow Village made me love it even more.

Check out the full Scarecrow Village photo gallery.

Getting to Nagoro

Nagoro is in the Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku, which lies south east of Hiroshima.

The valley is my favourite destination in Japan for hiking, climbing and other outdoor activities.

It’s also popular with domestic tourists, who flock to the valley’s onsens to bask in hot water pools, surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery.

In the future I’ll post photos from my time in the Iya Valley, but here’s a taste of the treasures it has to offer:

  • dramatic views over the sumptuous Iya Gorge, complete with an inexplicable brass statue of a boy peeing into the valley below
  • Ochiai hamlet, where the traditional farmhouses perched on the side of a steep hill date back to the Edo era (1603-1868)
  • shaky ancient vine bridges that were once the only way to cross the turbulent Iya River
  • bizarre Yokai Museum, which features dozens of crude-but-charming dioramas and statues of monsters from Japanese folklore
  • hiking, rafting and other outdoor activities

To find out more about the Iya Valley, the Wikitravel page is a good place to start. The easiest way to get there is to catch a train from Hiroshima.

If you don’t have a car, bear in mind that the Iya Valley is huge, and that it takes a long time to travel between attractions. Public buses are sporadic.

During my visit I hired a cab for daily trips around the valley. It’s an expensive option, but gives you the flexibility to spend more time in the areas you find most interesting.

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