Vanishing village in Japan is now home to more scarecrows than humans

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Woman Fills Village with Dolls

By Chris Meyers

NAGORO, Japan (Reuters) - Tsukimi Ayano made her first scarecrow 13 years ago to frighten off birds pecking at seeds in her garden. The life-sized straw doll resembled her father, so she made more. And then couldn't stop.

Today, the tiny village of Nagoro in southern Japan is teeming with Ayano's hand-sewn creations, frozen in time for a tableau that captures the motions of everyday life.

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Time stands still in Japan's village of scarecrows
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Vanishing village in Japan is now home to more scarecrows than humans
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, scarecrow teacher and students fill a classroom in the now deserted elementary school in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Tsukimi Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. The closure of the local elementary school two years ago was the last straw. Ayano unlocks the door and guides visitors through spotless classrooms populated with scarecrow students and teachers. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, Tsukimi Ayano stitches a scarecrow girl by her outdoor hearth at her home in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, a scarecrow granny gathers tall grass in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Tsukimi Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, a teenager look alike scarecrow sits on a log pile in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Tsukimi Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, Tsukimi Ayano speaks as she stitches a scarecrow girl by her outdoor hearth at her home in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, Tsukimi Ayano stitches a scarecrow girl by her outdoor hearth at her home in Nagoro in Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, white smoke rises from an outdoor hearth at Tsukimi Ayano's house sat by scarecrows she made in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, Tsukimi Ayano speaks as she stitches a scarecrow girl by her outdoor hearth at her home in the mountainous village of Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, white smoke rises from an outdoor hearth at Tsukimi Ayano's house sat by scarecrows she made in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, Tsukimi Ayano stitches a scarecrow girl by her outdoor hearth at her home in Nagoro in Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. “They bring back memories,” Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse home. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)
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Scarecrows pose in houses, fields, trees, streets, and at a crowded bus stop - where they wait for a bus that never comes.

"In this village, there are only 35 people," said Ayano. "But there are 150 scarecrows, so it's multiple times more."

Nagoro, like many villages in Japan's countryside, has been hit hard by inhabitants flocking to cities for work and leaving mostly pensioners behind. Its graying community is a microcosm of Japan, whose population has been falling for a decade and is projected to drop from 127 million to 87 million by 2060.

At 65, Ayano is among the youngest residents of Nagoro. The village school was shut in 2012 after its two pupils graduated.

But the building is now occupied by Ayano's scarecrows: students at their desks and in corridors, a teacher by the blackboard, while a suit-wearing school principal looks on.

Each of the 350 scarecrows crafted by Ayano over the years was built on a wooden base, with newspapers and cloth used to fill them out. They are often dressed in hand-me-downs, and the ones propped up outdoors lined with plastic to keep them dry.

Still, the weather plays spoilsport and Ayano has often had to replace scarecrows exposed to the open air.

Sometimes, the new ones she makes are made to order, usually in the likeness of young people who have left Nagoro or residents who have died.

"They're created as requests for those who've lost their grandfather or grandmother," said Osamu Suzuki, a 68-year-old resident. "So it's indeed something to bring back memories."

Tourists have started to come too, drawn by the two lifeless delegates guarding the road leading to the village, next to a board identifying Nagoro as "Scarecrow Village".

Ayano is happy to show her work to visitors, as long as she is not disturbed while watching her favorite television soap opera. On her daily rounds, she walks around the village bidding her motionless creations a good morning and tends to their needs.

(Writing by Tony Tharakan; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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