On a recent trip to Shikoku, we heard about a small town tucked away in the Iya Valley called Nagoro. Like many small rural towns in Japan, the human population has dwindled to almost nothing in recent years. Unlike other towns, though, Nagoro doesn’t look empty. That’s because it’s populated by hundreds of scarecrows.

Of course we had to go check it out.

A single road leads into and out of Nagoro, which is sometimes so narrow two cars can’t pass abreast. A small river flows alongside, making its way through the valley, while steep mountains loom on both sides.

At first glance, the town seems to be bustling with life: farmers tend the fields, families wait at the bus stop, old ladies gather to klatch. But if you stop your car to really look, you’ll notice none of the tableaus are moving… at least not while you are looking at them. It’s hard not to feel like they are shifting the moment you turn away.





The scarecrows are the work of Ayano Tsukimi, one of the few remaining human residents. She grew up in Nagoro, but moved away to Osaka as an adult. She returned home over a decade ago and made her first scarecrow for the same reason most people do: to keep birds away from the garden.

She modeled the first scarecrow after her father. It bore enough of a resemblance that neighbors would greet it as they passed, so Tsukimi thought a few more might bring some life and energy back to the town, attracting visitors who would otherwise just drive right through.

“I thought people would get interested and take photos,” she says.

Since then, she estimates she’s made about 350 scarecrows, though they only last up to three years out in the elements, so there are about 150 currently placed around Nagoro.



Over the years, as more residents have passed away or moved on, Tsukimi has created scarecrows to remember them by. “When I make dolls of dead people, I think of them when they were alive and healthy,” she says.




Tsukimi places the scarecrows out and about in town, having them do the things their human model enjoyed. When the local school finally closed up a few years ago, she made scarecrow teachers and students and placed them inside. Forever teaching, forever learning.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 1.00.20 PMPhoto: Fritz Schumann

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 1.00.49 PMPhoto: Fritz Schumann

The day we stopped by, we were the only humans around. There’s no denying the charm of the colorful scarecrows and their very human poses, but there’s definitely something uncanny about them too. I was glad we were there at midday and not twilight.



The strangest thing for me was the lack of any commercial aspect to the endeavor. As far as I can tell, there were no open businesses in Nagoro; nothing for the passing motorist to do except wander about and snap a few photos. The scarecrows do attract visitors and stir up interest, but at the same time, they don’t do anything to stave off the inevitable fate of Nagoro.

Between that sad fact and the scores of scarecrow ghosts of former residents, the visit made us quite melancholy in the end. But at least Tsukimi herself seems to take some comfort from her work. Some people might find her scarecrows creepy, she admits, but to her, they are like her children.





▼ The author stops for a chat with the locals IMG_7271

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