The Unsettling Japanese Town Filled With Dolls

“Do not confuse fantasy with imagination: the former consumes itself in daydreaming, the latter stimulates creativity in the arts and in the sciences.” —Fausto Cercignani

In A Nutshell

Visitors to the Japanese city of Nagoro are greeted by a strange sight. There are only a few people who still live in the town, but at a glance, it’s full of figures working in the fields, fishing, and waiting for the buses. Those figures are life-size dolls, though, created by one of the town’s few remaining residents, Ayano Tsukimi. It’s not just a matter of the dolls populating the town, either—each one represents a person that has died or left, and each one sits in a place that was special to them while they were there.

Note: The dolls are similar to the one pictured above, although we could not obtain rights to pictures of the actual dolls. Links below.

The Whole Bushel

The Japanese city of Nagoro is a dying one. Never a bustling metropolis, it was still, nevertheless, not that long ago that it was the home of a factory, workers, and families who were able to make a living surrounded by the breathtakingly beautiful Japanese countryside. But the factory closed, and the people started to die.

Ayano Tsukimi moved back to the town after spending some time in Osaka. When she returned, the city was already in a sad state. She says that she didn’t have that much to do, so she started trying to plant a garden. When the garden failed, she made her first scarecrow, in the image of her deceased father, hoping that his image would look over the crops and the garden there.

He was the first of many, many dolls.

To date, she’s made more than 350 of the scarecrow-dolls, all in the shape and image of someone from the town who has died or moved away. She dresses them, makes sure they have a facial expression that’s appropriate to who they were, and then places them around the town in locations that had special meaning to each of them.

Some relax on park benches while some are perched in trees, holding the rifles they once hunted with. Others sit beside the river with their wellies and their fishing poles. Couples sit, holding hands outside the homes where they once raised families.

The town’s buildings are now populated with dolls as well. The school, shut down years ago, once had students and teachers and a principal—humans that lived and breathed and learned. Today, a doll sits at the teacher’s desk, in front of a blackboard filled with writing and lessons. Dolls sit at the students’ desk, some holding pencils, some with books open in front of them, some with their homework halfway done. Some stand in the hallway, waiting between classes, while the principal watches over his students.

Eventually, she saw that there was interest in the dolls. People would come and take pictures of them as they sat in the fields, tending crops that no longer grew, or watching the fish pass by in the rivers.

The dolls only last for about three years, and Tsukimi has already made one for herself. She’s not afraid to die, she says, and she knows that, should something happen to her, the chances are good that she would die before making it to the nearest hospital. In the meantime, though, she tends to her dolls.

The dolls in the village are the result of a decade of work, and Tsukimi says she’ll keep making them, in spite of the mixed reaction she gets from those who come to visit her valley.

She wonders if there will come a day when she is the only one left, surrounded by nothing more than the dolls she made to remember the people that once walked the streets.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Dolls Replace People in This Deserted Town
Unusual Places: Nagoro—A Creepy Japanese Village Where Dolls Replace The Departed