Village of The Dolls in Skikoku
Story by Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross

Heeding the advice of "Don't believe everything you read," a traveler who goes to the source finds that the narrative written and repeated about an artist on an island in Japan is far from the truth.

dolls in Japan

When I first heard about it, something stirred inside of me, and I knew I had to go there. An elderly Japanese woman had moved back from Osaka to Nagoro village, where she was raised. It was in the remote Iya Valley on Skikoku, the smallest and least populated of the main Japanese islands. She had returned to Nagoro to take care of her ailing father, but she was terribly sad and lonely because the village was largely deserted; almost all of the inhabitants had died or moved away.

Japanese fishermen dolls

In order to attenuate her isolation, she created life-size dolls that were modeled after people she remembered: the postman, farmers, neighbors, and children who played outside and went to school. She placed them throughout the village, and it became known as the Village of Dolls or the Village of Scarecrows. Visitors came from all over Japan to learn the mournful story and see the dolls that had replaced the villagers.

On a recent trip to Japan, my guide and translator Cara Encabo and driver Nozake took me to Nagoro. It was a cold winter day and as I walked down the road that snaked through the mountain town, I saw partially snow-covered, human-size figures everywhere. A family huddled in a bus shelter; a few people gathered in front of a small shop; an elderly couple sat at a table; a guard was armed with a gun; kids sported backpacks. Farmers planted crops in the fields and fishermen carried their poles. One man sat in an abandoned truck, strapped in a seatbelt. A young boy stood next to his bike; a repairman was getting ready to shimmy up a utility pole.

One of the few Japanese tourists in town that day shook his head and remarked how sad it was. He said he hoped that Tsukimi Ayano, the artist, had found solace in making the dolls, and he trusted that they kept her company in such a remote and abandoned place. The Japanese woman with him sighed and said it must be hard to be old and alone and to know that most of your friends and neighbors were dead or gone. She found the figures spooky, even creepy.

Japanese doll leaning against bike

I listened but what I was feeling was quite different. I thought the dolls were bursting with life and energy. Each of them had a unique face, clothes and accessories. Some of them seemed so real I half-expected them to move or speak. I marveled that such vibrant dolls could be born from such sorrow. I told Cara I wished I could meet the creator.

The Artist’s Story

Cara walked to the artist’s wood frame house, which was at the end of a snowy path that led upward from the main road. She made a thumbs-up sign to me, indicating that Tsukimi Ayano was home, and I bounded towards her house.

A smiling, cheerful Ayano arrived at the doorway, greeted me warmly, and ushered me in. She had dark, short hair, seemed to be in her mid-60’s, and was wearing a brown kimono over a light gray turtleneck top and black trousers. A purple and navy vest cascaded down her side. She hardly seemed to be miserable or depressed. She beckoned for me to sit on a tatami mat as she kneeled next to a large pot on a wood-burning stove where she was cooking zenzai. She carefully scooped some of the adzuki bean soup into a bowl and proffered it. It was warm, sweet, and served with kombu seaweed to offset the sweetness.

As I enjoyed the hot soup on a blistery day, I commented to Ayano that she must have a huge and strong spirit because there was enough of it to make so many dolls. “No, no,” she said modestly, “I am just an old woman.” I smiled because to me she seemed youthful and radiant.

Tsukimi Ayano with her dolls

When I finished the soup, Ayano introduced me to the dolls that shared the house with her. One of them was her mother, who died at the age of 56. And surrounding her mother were well-dressed, well-groomed guests at a wedding. “During my mother’s time, weddings took place in the houses. My mother told me all about it. I never saw one myself. So I created the indoor wedding here, based on what I heard. My mother Ayako is among the celebrants,” she said. “And you see that one of the guests is filled with emotion at the wedding; that why the eyes are closed.”

“They are beautiful,” I said sincerely. “How long does it take you to make a figure?”

“It takes one day to make a child. For an adult…about three or four days. For faces and hands, I use t-shirts or any other flesh-colored material I have. I stuff newspapers inside the bodies. But I use cotton batting inside the faces. The hardest part to make is the face. I have to think about which expression I want. Once the body is finished, then I just choose the right clothes.”

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Read this article online at: Village of The Dolls in Skikoku

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