Valley of the Dolls

Japan's Disappearing Villages

One of the dolls Tsukimi Ayano created to fill the mountain village of Nagoro on Shikoku Island in southern Japan, February 24, 2015. Thomas Peter / Reuters

The small town of Nagoro is dying. Only 35 people still live in this remote part of Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan. Nagoro is one of 10,000 villages throughout the country that are expected to disappear in the coming decades due to urban migration. One resident, however, is trying to fight the emptiness of her hometown by creating life-sized dolls of those who either die or move away. Ayano Tsukimi’s dolls now outnumber the villagers ten to one.

I visited Nagoro in November 2013 to film my documentary, Valley of the Dolls, and to introduce Tsukimi’s strange creations to a Western audience for the first time. When I arrived, Nagoro was eerily silent. There were no murmurs or conversations, no humming of machines, and no shouts of playing children. Only the Iya River made a steady noise, gushing down its valley. The lone road to the town is just a single lane, twisting and turning alongside the mountain and shrouded in complete darkness at night. A visiting car is a rare sight in this village, situated high in the mountains and one hour away from the next traffic intersection. Yet, almost all travelers who pass through stop once they see the dolls. 

Tsukimi made all her dolls by hand out of wood, cotton, old paper, and donated clothes. She says that for her, the lips are one of the hardest parts to get right. “A little tweak and they can look angry,” she told me. But, “I’m very good at making grandmothers. I pull the strings at the mouth and they smile.” At least 70 of her dolls sit, stand, or crouch just outside her house and she has placed another 20 inside her living room. The rest are scattered throughout the village and the eastern side of the Iya Valley. Altogether, Tsukimi believes she has created at least 350 dolls over the last eleven years. But she hasn’t kept count and isn’t sure that number is right. The dolls, which initially

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