Nagoro Village
Nagoro Village

Nagoro : The Village of Dolls

For those who enjoy driving and don’t find cliffs and mountain switchbacks too scary, the Iya Valley offers magnificent landscapes and dozens of remote little villages, each one more piquant than the last.

This is the second time I’ve visited Nagoro, the famous Village of Dolls. I’d been there five years earlier and spent a day with Tsukimi Ayano. I’d imagined meeting her then, and it was her who came to look for me with her laughing eyes and an insatiable desire to tell me all, show me all.

So she opened the doors of the abandoned school and several other houses so I could find out more about her dolls.

How old was she at the time? Is she still there today? I admit that I feel a tad uneasy at the thought of meeting a very different woman to the one of my memories. However, I’m used to this feeling, like all those who live abroad, far from their own folk; hoping to come back to a dear place and relive good times there as if nothing had changed.

The population of Nagoro, like most villages in Japan, is rapidly dwindling. In 2002, Tsukimi Ayano, a villager who spent part of her life as an Osaka housewife, came back home. She used to love making little dolls, but it was after resettling in Nagoro that she made her first scarecrow – a giant doll resembling her father – to guard a field.

Nagoro Village
Nagoro Village

After the amused reactions of her neighbours, she decided to make more. She began to craft the images of people who’d moved away or died, or those passing through. This village, which has barely 20 residents, now has more than 300 dolls! Each has their own name, personality, age and backstory catalogued.

Here I am again in the narrow street that runs through the village. I recognize some dolls, others seem to have disappeared, some seem new to me. The same dog as five years ago – Leon-chan – still attached to his lead, howls at me atop his heap of stones. And just then a boxy little car parks next to me, a Nissan Roox. It’s Tsukimi Ayano on her way home from the shops!

Nagoro Village
Nagoro Village

Of course she’d forgotten me, so she eagerly offers to show me round. She tells me about her expanding activities, her village now full of life with so many visitors, her doll-making workshops. The dolls even have their own festival on the first Sunday in October!

Nagoro Village
Nagoro Village

At the bus stop, I spot a new doll, wearing a stars and stripes tie. Wait a sec … could it be Trump? Of course not, she gaily says to me! Everybody thinks it’s Trump, but it’s Pakkun, an American celebrity (talento) in Japan! He’s visited Nagoro, and what’s more doesn’t think much of Trump. At the bus stop she shows me some flyers: so beautifully illustrated, they explain how to make a doll. Scraps of wood, wire, newspaper, fabric … They also tell the story of the village, introduced as: “a village where people and scarecrows live together in harmony”. 

Nagoro: Village of the Dolls
Nagoro: Village of the Dolls

Some seem to think that it’s an absurd idea, sheer madness even, but you only have to visit Nagoro to recognize that it’s the opposite. It’s an ode to love of people, life and those moments you never want to forget.

Nagoro Village
Nagoro Village

Night falls fast on this little village in the hollow of the Tokushima mountains. The dolls begin to cast gigantic frightening shadows. The crows, more at ease at that time of day, land here and there against a purple sky with the aggressive kaa! kaa! cry that gives the birds their name, karasu. Time for me to leave, and let Tsukimi Ayano go home.

I wonder what she dreams about at night … Maybe a world of dolls, with a mysterious village of humans lost in the mountains?

Who Am I

I am Jordy Meow, a French photographer based in Tokyo. I explore offbeat places in Japan.

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