Creative non-fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

The Dollmaker and Her Village Dolls

by Mei Chiam

It was like the set for a horror movie.

The moment I alighted at the bus stop, I was greeted by the sight of several figures seated quietly on a bench, life-sized and lifelike. A closer inspection showed otherwise.

Dolls at the bus stop

They were all dolls, dressed like the humans they were modelled after, and they were all over this tiny village deep in the mountains of Tokushima in Shikoku.

I was in Nagoro, which has made headlines all over the world and gone viral on social media as the Village of the Dolls or, more accurately, Scarecrows, as its Japanese moniker is Kakashi no Sato. However, these creations are more than just the scrawny straw-filled scarecrows that we usually see in agricultural fields. They were lovingly made, filled and dressed up like oversized dolls.

The town was remote, depopulated, but utterly beautiful in the autumn when I visited. The season's colours were more apparent here. I gawked at the dolls, I marvelled at the scenery, was totally trigger-happy with my camera. The village was eerily silent, save for the sounds of trickling water from the nearby Nagoro River.

I was determined to meet Ayano-san, the dollmaker of Nagoro, who had moved back to her village after spending decades in Osaka. In her 60s, she is one of the youngest villagers. Remembering what I had read about her reasons for making the dolls, I felt a pang of sorrow for this village.

There are now fewer than thirty residents in Nagaro, while the dolls continue to grow in number. Everyone else has either moved away or passed on, while there are now over 300 hand-sewn dolls in town.

As foreigners, when we speak of Japan, we often think of bustling and crowded streets like those in Tokyo or Osaka. However, the countryside and the regional towns provide a stark contrast to this stereotypical image. 

Nagoro's fate is not unusual, as rural Japan has faced severe population decline in the past several years. Someday, Nagaro would likely join the ranks of numerous ghost towns and empty villages across the country. 

Meanwhile, I felt like I was facing a problem, as I stood still and looked around the village. I had no idea where Ayano-san's house was, and there was no one to ask. It was almost like an abandoned village already.

I walked around, still busy taking photos. Almost every house by the roadside had a doll or two outside. I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone left in the village. The thought sent a shiver down my spine.

Dolls outside houses

I randomly followed a path up to a house set further away from the road, just opposite the bus stop. The first thing that caught my attention was the laundry flapping gently in the wind. First sign of life!

There were more dolls near the vegetable patch in front of the house. Beneath a tree, I could see a figure lazing on a bench, but it turned out to be another doll. The next house had a wooden work table outside. Washed vegetables laid on it, unattended. The scenario was getting more curious.

Suddenly, I knew I had found the house of Ayano-san, because seated in a row on the front porch were more dolls and some unfinished clayworks. I remembered she was also a clay artist. I admired the detail of her claywork, while debating what to do next.

I was unsure if I should call out for her. It seemed intrusive, but at the same time, I could not possibly be here and not meet her at all. A moment of conflicting emotions passed through me, as I tried to come to a decision.

It did not take me long, because suddenly the sliding front door opened and Ayano-san exited from the house. I recognised her from all the articles I had read. She looked at me questioningly.

Still somewhat startled by her sudden appearance, I stammered out an apology and explained in halting Japanese who I was, where I was from and what I was doing in Nagoro. I thought I sounded like a fangirl meeting her favourite celebrity.

She gestured at me to enter the house. I was not quite prepared for this. Feeling incredibly honoured, I peered in. The first thing I saw was the kamado, or wood-fired stove. I realised I had interrupted her while she was cooking and felt somewhat abashed.

As I took off my shoes, I took a quick glance around and saw some of her prized dolls in a corner, which included a supposed replica of her own mother.

Despite being a total stranger, Ayano-san was obliging enough to allow me to take photos of and with her. After chatting for a few minutes, she told me she could not entertain me any longer as she had to cook for a festival, which would be held at a nearby town the next day. The food she had over the kamado were oden items.

Ayano-san preparing oden

She encouraged me to look freely around the village, but also reminded me of the time that the next bus would arrive. It was the last bus out of the village, and I would not want to miss it.

After bidding her goodbye, I started out to explore further. I hadn't made it far before Ayano-san came after me. I waited for her to catch up, wondering what had happened.

When she came up to me, she held out two plastic bags. One contained mikan oranges and the other two taiyaki pastries. She said they were for my journey back on the bus, as it would be late by the time I reached my destination. I was deeply moved by this kind gesture and thanked her profusely.

She also told me she wanted to show me some newer dolls that had been made for a recent festival and that she'd stored in a hall nearby. On the way there, we met some other sightseers—a German couple and an elderly Japanese man—who'd come by car from the direction of Mt Tsurugi, a popular hiking destination in this part of Shikoku. They too were invited to view the dolls in the hall. It felt like a special privilege.

The dolls were seated around a table as if in conference. Some of them were in festive kimonos. They were all beautiful, with expressions distinct from one another, making them quite lifelike.

Just opposite the small hall, across the Nagoro River, was a defunct primary school. Ayano-san said that she kept more dolls over there, but we could not go over the bridge because it was under repair. 

Impassable bridge, with defunct school in the background

Locking up the hall after we all had viewed the occupants, she excused herself as she hurried back to her house. The other tourists left in their cars.

I continued my leisurely walk around the village, mindful of the time. It would not be long before the bus arrived, so I kept myself in view of the main road. The air was crisp and cool in the late afternoon, making the walk delightful.

When the bus finally appeared, right on time, I felt a tinge of sadness at leaving. I silently said goodbye to the dolls at the bus stop, idly wondering how many visitors they had witnessed coming and going from this beautiful village.

It would be a long journey back to Ōboke Station, the terminus of this bus service, and as the bus made its way out of Nagoro, my mind was fully occupied with thoughts of my visit.

I tried to imagine having to sleep and wake up to views of the dolls every day. It would surely be an out-of-this-world experience for anyone. Then I reminded myself that Nagoro was not a touristy spot even though it had become a tourist attraction. There were no hotels, no cafés, and I suddenly realised I hadn't even seen a vending machine. The realisation jarred me a little.

The fact that the village did not even have one of Japan's ever-ubiquitous vending machines was compelling enough. It spoke volumes about the grave reality in Nagaro, as its residents dwindled in number.

Dolls are everywhere

I could not imagine how the elderly residents must feel in their day-to-day lives, living among the dolls, perhaps knowing that someday they would become one of them. Yet, even as the occasional tourist came to gawk, the residents were accommodating. I had met only three human residents while I was there, but I had felt their typical Japanese hospitality, even if only briefly.

Nagoro had left an indelible impression on me that breezy autumn afternoon. Somehow, I knew I would want to return someday.

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