I had set out to explore the heart of Shikoku, the smallest and least visited of Japan’s four main islands, and was white-knuckledly navigating my rental car along a one-lane road through a mountain valley toward a storied vine bridge. I drove through a seemingly deserted village of a dozen homes perched precariously on metal stilts over a river, turned a corner and saw in the distance three figures slumped against an electricity pole.

They were dressed in rubber boots, rough-spun farmers’ trousers and windbreakers, and wore white gloves on their hands. Baseball caps covered their heads. Yet something was odd in their postures. They didn’t seem quite human. As I got closer, I realised they weren’t human. Their faces were made of white cloth, plump and pillowy, with buttons for eyes and black yarn for eyebrows.

Five metres further on, I saw another of these human-sized figures pushing a wheelbarrow in a field, then another pulling weeds, then five of them sitting on a bench at a bus stop.

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I was wondering what alternate reality I had wandered into when I spied another figure on the side of the road ahead. This one was also remarkably lifelike, dressed in black sneakers, trousers and a grey smock, her hands gloved and her head hidden under a bonnet. I turned my eyes back to the road, then abruptly stopped. That figure had taken a step! And another!

I pulled up and walked warily towards the bonneted figure, not quite sure who or what I was about to encounter.

“Excuse me!” I called. The figure seemed not to hear. “Excuse me!” I yelled, much louder.

The figure stopped and slowly turned.

A human face appeared – warm, flesh-coloured, lined and benign, with tiny, sparkling eyes. “Yes?” a woman’s voice replied in Japanese.

“Excuse me, but may I ask you a question?”

“Yes, of course.”

I walked forward, sweeping my arm towards the figures on both sides of the road. “Do you know who has created these wonderful creatures?”

She looked at me intently for a moment, then broke into a smile. “I did!”

That was how I met Ayano Tsukimi, the scarecrow master of Shikoku. The year was 2013, and I was venturing into the virtually impenetrable green folds of the Iya Valley, a remote region in the north-eastern part of the island where paved roads had been introduced only half a century before.

My wife was born and raised on Shikoku, and I had heard about the Iya Valley from my brother-in-law, who had said that it was a rugged place of thatch-roofed farmhouses, barley fields, vine bridges and traditional ways – but he had not mentioned anything about human-like figures.

Ayano-san burst into laughter at the wonder in my eyes.

“May I ask you about these?” I said.

“Of course!” she said. “Would you like some tea?”

They’re rather unusual, aren’t they?

We wandered past two small boys – well, boy-like figures – playing on a rusting bicycle, and a woman sitting in a work shed with her back to the road. Ayano-san led me up a driveway to her simple house. Seated beside the path to her door were half a dozen more figures: a girl in school uniform; a mother with a baby in her lap; an elderly gentleman in a business suit holding a cigarette.

I took off my shoes and stepped into a tatami-matted room crammed with more of her creations, including a couple dressed in traditional wedding kimonos, standing formally at the end of the room. I felt like a character in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Ayano-san bade me sit on the tatami mats beside her traditional irori hearth, then left to make tea. She returned with a small lacquer tray bearing two cups, and placed one carefully before me.

I bowed and said thank you, and she looked at me, eyes twinkling. “They’re rather unusual, aren’t they?”

“Yes, they truly are. Please tell me about them.”

“Well,” she began. “I grew up here but left to go to Osaka with my parents when I was in secondary school. I stayed there, got married and had children. At one point my parents moved back here and then, when my mother passed away, I came back to care of my father. That was in 2002.

“I made the first kakashi…”

I stopped her. “I’m sorry, but what was that word?”

“Kakashi. The figures farmers use to scare away birds from their crops.”

“Ah, kakashi!” Scarecrows.

“I made the first kakashi to scare away the birds. I noticed that they were eating the seeds in that field out there” – she pointed outside her doorway – “and so I wanted to shoo them away.”

“I made a few more for that purpose. Then when our neighbour up the road passed away, I missed her – I used to talk with her every day. So I made a scarecrow that looked like her, so that I could continue to greet her every morning.

“Over time,” she said, with a shrug and a sigh, “more and more of the villagers passed away. I began to make scarecrows to remember them and in a way to keep them alive.”

She paused. I sipped my tea and watched. For a moment, a cloud passed over her face, shadowing the sun of her smile. Then it evaporated, and she pointed to a figure seated on the tatami behind me, a wise-looking woman with braided grey hair made of thick yarn, clad in an elegant grey kimono. “That’s my mother,” she said. “I still talk to her every day. Would you like to take a walk?”

We wandered a few minutes down the road to an imposing two-storey concrete building behind a dirt playground. “This used to be the elementary school,” she said. “But over the years, the students became fewer and fewer until finally, last year, they closed the school. Now all the students in this area go to a school 30 minutes away by bus.”

There was no regret in her voice; she was simply stating the facts. “Come inside!” she said, opening the door into the school.

As we walked, I could hardly believe my eyes. Scarecrows were everywhere. A scarecrow principal supervised the hallway, scarecrow teachers gathered in a teachers’ lounge, and in a schoolroom, 20 scarecrow children were seated obediently at their desks, textbooks open, earnestly looking at the scarecrow teacher at the front of the room. On the blackboard behind her was written, ‘My future dream’ – the Japanese equivalent of ‘What I want to be when I grow up’.

There was a warmth to Ayano-san’s character and a poignancy to her story that took seed in my soul

By the time we finished our tour, the sun was lowering. I needed to get back to my hotel before dark, so I said a hasty thank you and promised that I would return.

Driving back along the winding road, I was filled with deeply mixed feelings. On the one hand, there was something undeniably unsettling about the figures, especially the schoolchildren, who seemed like characters in a horror film about to leap into life. But on the other hand, there was a warmth to Ayano-san’s character and a poignancy to her story that took seed in my soul.

A year later, on a sunny spring day, I returned. This time I was leading a group of eight Americans to the vine bridge, and when we reached Nagoro, the scarecrow village, I asked our minivan driver to pull off the road. Ayano-san was standing in front of her house.

I leapt out. “Hello, Ayano-san!” I called out, waving.

She peered at me, puzzled. Then she looked more closely. “Ah, welcome back!” she said. And she invited us into her home to introduce her creations.

For a year, I had been wondering how she made these figures. Finally, I had the chance to ask.

It takes about three days to make one kakashi, Ayano-san explained. She begins with the face, taking a square patch of white, stretchy, jersey-type cloth and wrapping it around the kind of batting used to stuff quilts. After sewing the back, she stuffs in more batting to form the nose, sews on buttons for the eyes and shapes the lips by deftly pinching and sewing the cloth. She takes special care with the ears, Ayano-san said, tucking and sewing the cloth so that the ears have individualised creases. “I want to make sure my kakashi can hear well,” she explained with a smile.

For the arms and legs, she wraps wire around rolled-up newspapers, using more newspaper to stuff the torso. When the body is complete, she dresses it in clothing – from scarves to elaborate kimonos – that has been brought or sent to her by fans from throughout Japan. She then places the figure in the location she has envisioned, utilising the wire’s flexibility to arrange the arms and legs.

When she finished her explanation, we all burst into applause. Her smile filled the room.

I have returned to Nagoro every spring since then, and in the intervening years, as other foreigners have made their way here too, Ayano-san has become something of a celebrity. A German film-maker posted a short documentary about her in 2014, and a dozen articles have been written about her (many of which, sadly in this age of copycat journalism, mistakenly state that her father has passed away – news that was quite a shock to her father, who was pottering energetically away in the yard on my most recent visit this May).

Accounts by other writers often use ‘creepy’ or similar words to describe her creations, but as I have been drawn back every year, my understanding has ripened.

She fills the kakashi with art and soul and loving memory

Nagoro’s story is not unique. Every year it’s played out in hundreds of villages around Japan. Children growing up in these remote areas, dealing with the demanding conditions of rural life, are seduced by the allure of big cities – conveniences, jobs, entertainment – and leave their hometowns, never to return.

The dilemma is common, but Ayano-san’s response has been pure, wholehearted and unique. A few times a week she gathers cloth, batting, newspaper, wire and clothing, and begins to craft a figure who represents a cherished grandmother or grandfather who has passed away, or a child who moved to the city, or even a visitor who has left a mark on her heart.

She has chosen to repopulate her village with these eminently un-scary scarecrows, and she fills them with art and soul and loving memory.

In this, she symbolises Shikoku itself, a stunningly beautiful but largely ignored and impoverished island whose residents meet the challenges of daily life with a deeply ingrained resourcefulness and resilience. Every day on Shikoku, farmers plant and harvest rice, mikan oranges, shiitake mushrooms, wheat, tomatoes and other crops, as they have for centuries; every day, fishermen motor out before dawn and return each afternoon with nets silver-shimmering with yellowtail, sea bream and bonito.

And in the island’s best-known tradition, Buddhist pilgrims from near and far walk a sacred circuit of 88 temples, honouring the founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi. As they walk, they are welcomed by the locals with smiles, bows and gifts of rice, oranges and biscuits to help them on their journey.

In her own way, I have come to realise, Ayano-san too is offering gifts to help us all on our life’s journey.

On my May visit to Nagoro, I met another resident of the village and asked her what she thought about the scarecrows.

“At first they were a little disturbing,” she said, “for us just as for visitors. But I’ve come to like them and find comfort in them. I recognise people who have passed away and it’s nice to have them still here.”

On that visit, Ayano-san again invited me and my fellow travellers into her home. I asked her how many scarecrows she had made since 2002. “I think about 450,” she said. “Every three years or so, I have to replace them. Now there are 27 people living in the village – and 200 scarecrows!” She laughed.

One of the members of our group asked if, once her father passed away, she would move back to Osaka.

There was a long silence and she seemed lost in thought, gazing into the distance.

I recognise people who have passed away and it’s nice to have them still here

Finally she spoke. “I don’t think so,” she said. She looked out at the fields, the bus stop, the woodshed, the one-lane road, all of them enlivened by her creations. “I’m quite content here. I’m among my friends.

“And look!” She turned back to us, her eyes sparkling, her face crinkling into a bright smile. “They are bringing new friends to my village, too!”

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