CREEPY CORNER: The Village of Dolls in Nagoro, Japan

Dolls, 350. Humans, 37.
Publish date:
July 23, 2015
death, creepy corner, dolls, japan

Greetings Creepy Corneristas!

It's good to be back in the Corner. Before we continue with this week's installment (DOLLS Y'ALL! Basically our Creepy Corner mascot. Or Gef, who it seems I can't go a week without mentioning), I want to thank you all for holding down the dark, dank fort while I was away.

As I suspected, your spooky stories were the best Creepy Corner has to offer, and I am proud as putrid punch to be a part of this little community. THANK YOU!

In fact, your submissions were so good that you can expect another Creepy Corner reader submission post in the future. So keep submitting to!

I'm especially interested in local urban legends from where you skulk about, but really anything goes. Some of the best submissions don't fit into a box. Just try to stick to the guidelines set in the the first call for submissions post.

But what do I have in store for you today, my pretties?

One Japanese town. 37 humans. 350 dolls.

OK, I know, "Really Lou? Dolls AGAIN? Don't you do anything else but Google 'dolls, creepy, news'?" (No.)

But these dolls are different. Yes, there is an eerie element to this "town of dolls" that reminded me at first of my favorite crappy horror movie, House of Wax. And yes, the Are You Afraid of the Dark? kid in me was like, "No night the dolls troll for souls."

However, if living in Japan has taught me anything, it's that the Japanese have a way of dealing with strange or death-related things that is both calmly accepting and brutally honest. If you're willing to look beyond the mere creep factor of these dolls, there is a sad, lovely quality to them.

Over 10 years ago, Ayano Tsukimi moved back to her home village of Nagoro, a tiny town tucked into a valley of Shikoku, Japan. Upon returning to her village to care for her ailing father after many years in the major city of Osaka, Tsukimi was struck by how much the population of her town had dwindled.

Numbering around 300 residents when she was a child, Nagoro had shrank to about 37 people. The older people had died, the younger people had moved to bigger, more modern cities, and nobody was moving in to take their place. Rather remote, the closest town being 90 minutes away, few people pass through Nagoro.

And, with Tsukimi being one of the town's youngest residents at age 65, the village of Nagoro seems destined to die out.

After returning to Nagoro, Tsukimi decided to plant a vegetable garden. But the vegetables wouldn't grow. Wondering if crows were to blame (seriously, you don't screw around with Japanese crows — they will fly off with your baby), Tsukimi built some scarecrows to protect her garden. This decision would change Tsukimi's life.

From then on, Tsukimi kept building dolls. She lovingly created dolls in memory of villagers who had died, placing them "in a spot that was meaningful to that person." She created dolls in the image of people who had moved on from the village — the school house in particular, full of representations of the children and teachers that no longer populate its classrooms. The last two students of the school graduated in 2012.

(For some gorgeous photos of Tsukimi's dolls — photos that I don't have the rights to — click here.)

At this point, the dolls far outnumber the people of Nagoro. 350 life-size dolls are placed throughout the village, each a memory of a person or time that touched Tsukimi's life.

"They bring back memories," Tsukimi told Tomo News. Referring to an old woman doll, and an old man doll she placed outside her home, "That old lady used to come and chat and drink tea. That old man used to love to drink sake and tell stories. It reminds me of the old times, when they were still alive and well."

With dolls at play, working the fields, lounging outside shops, or just going about daily life, the village might appear bustling from a distance. Tsukimi specifically placed some of "her children" as she sometimes refers to them, on the road leading to the village. She hopes that visitors might be enticed to linger a while in Nagoro and perhaps take some pictures of her dolls. Tsukimi has even erected a sign that says "Scarecrow Village."

If she isn't busy, Tsukimi is more than happy to show visitors around the town. Of course, she has her priorities. If you disturb her while she's watching her soap operas, you're on your own!

Everyday, Tsukimi walks through the town tending to her dolls. Stuffed with newspaper and cloth (the outdoor dolls have a plastic lining), each doll lasts about three years. But Tsukimi has no intention to stop hand making her dolls.

She told On Demand News, "From now on, as long as I am healthy, I plan to keep making them. I enjoy it, and then hopefully people can enjoy it as well; as I look to make them even more life-like. So that when people look at them, they have to look twice and say, 'Oh that wasn't a person!'. So I will keep making them."

Much of the coverage on Nagoro and Ayano Tsukimi focuses on the "chilling" aspect of the dolls. "Creepy," "eerie" and "dead-eyed" are all tossed around when discussing Nagoro's dolls. I admit the spookiness of the dolls is what drew me to this story initially. Certainly, being surrounded by a silent village of unblinking button-eyes would be a little unnerving to an unsuspecting traveler.

But there is more to the dolls of Nagoro. There is a poignancy to the mourning aspect of Tsukimi's dolls. Mourning not only for long departed friends and family (a doll in the image of Tsukimi's mother resides in her home), but for a time when the town itself was younger, perhaps had the spark of potential.

The dolls are not an attempt to bring back livelier times, but a remembrance that time has passed, is passing, and everything will end. Perhaps unwittingly, Tsukimi created a "Memento Mori Village." There is a sadness in this, but not despair. Tsukimi herself calmly acknowledges that the dolls will not last forever, and neither will Nagoro.

"As much as I would like the village to come back to life, I accept that it’s not going to happen...In 10 or 20 years’ time, there will be no one left," she tells The Guardian. "It’s very sad, but times are changing and we have to accept that this is the way things are going to be."

Yet, Tsukimi herself does not seem bogged down by memories, or her certainty of Nagoro's future. In her, there is an almost cheery understanding of what is to come — no fight, no desperate attempt to extend the town's life, but what can only be described as a serene acceptance of death.

In a short film by Fritz Schumann, The Valley of Dolls, Tsukimi says:

"I don't think about death. But it takes 90 minutes to get to a proper hospital. So if something happened, I would probably die before making it there. I have a doll based on myself. Every day she watches the pot and the fire. She's taking a nap now. I don't think dying is scary. [she laughs] I'll probably live forever."

If you have the time, I'd highly recommend watching this six-minute short film. Not only will you see some really striking images of the town, but listening to Ayano Tsukimi speak and go about her business is oddly soothing.