The town of Nagoro, Japan, is inhabited by more dolls than people. Even in a world littered with bizarre small villages and creepy locales, this town stands out. Nagoro feels otherworldly, and it's all thanks to one devoted doll maker.
Life-sized, handmade dolls populate Nagoro, each representing a former occupant. When it became clear the population was shrinking, Ayano Tsukimi decided to replace each lost person with a doppelgänger. There are over 300 of them, and to Tsukimi, they're “her children.” There are only 37 actual residents in the town, and they live among an entire community of puppets.
You may dismiss Nagoro as nightmarish. Or perhaps you think it's sweet that this woman wants to depict how the town was before it lost the majority of its residents.
When artist Ayano Tsukimi first began crafting dolls, it was by happy accident. She had returned to her home village of Nagoro after living in Osaka, one of Japan's largest cities.
When she came back to the nearly abandoned town, she tried farming to make ends meet. However, after her seeds failed to produce crops, she built a scarecrow to ward off hungry birds. She modeled the figure after her late father.
The scarecrow was so convincing that neighbors began to greet it. As she says in the documentary The Valley of Dolls:
All the neighbors thought because the scarecrow was wearing his clothes and looked like him, that he was out farming very early in the morning. They would sometimes say, "Good morning, you're up working very early." It just started up a conversation between the scarecrow and the neighbors.
It also started a hobby that transformed the town.
Ayano Tsukimi has been crafting cloth doppelgängers for over a decade, and there are now around 350 toy citizens. Tsukimi lovingly creates dolls in memory of villagers who have passed away, placing them "in a spot that was meaningful to that person." Some feel hauntingly similar to their dead counterparts.
"They bring back memories," Tsukimi says.
All of Ayano Tsukimi's dolls have personalized faces and clothing. Some are characters she's made up. Others are based on real people. She's even received requests.
Tsukimi says creating the facial expressions is the hardest part of crafting each doll. As she puts it, "A little tweak and they could look angry." It's vital for her to capture the essence of her lost neighbors, while also making sure they don't look sour or out of place.
Nagoro has an empty school that used to be a bustling center for students and teachers alike. The declining population spurred some residents to pack up and move to larger cities in hopes of finding more work and stability. This shift also forced the schoolhouse to shut its doors; however, now it's filled with dozens of puppets representing students and faculty.