Discover the Ghost Towns of Japan–Where Scarecrows Replace People, and a Man Lives in an Abandoned Elementary School Gym

In recent years, the major cities of Japan have felt as big and bustling as ever. But more than a lit­tle of that urban ener­gy has come at a cost to the coun­try­side, whose ongo­ing depop­u­la­tion since the Sec­ond World War has become the stuff of count­less mourn­ful pho­to essays. Japan is, of course, well-known as the kind of soci­ety that keeps a rur­al train sta­tion in ser­vice just to take a sin­gle pupil to school. But in many of these areas, the day even­tu­al­ly comes when there’s no one left to teach. After not just the stu­dents but the fac­ul­ty and staff have cleared out, what to do with the schools them­selves? If you’re any­thing like Aoki Yohei (known to all as “Yo-chan”), you just move your­self on in.

In one of the school’s many rooms Aoki runs a café, roast­ing cof­fee on the premis­es, and in oth­ers he’s set up a hos­tel. In anoth­er space he’s cre­at­ed a record­ing stu­dio out­fit­ted with gui­tars, drums, key­boards, and much else besides. This sort of thing would hard­ly be pos­si­ble with­in the con­fines of a Tokyo apart­ment, and Aoki accom­plished it all after quit­ting his salary­man job with­out a plan.

Or rather he did it noupu­ran, to use one of the many Eng­lishisms he drops in the inter­view with Tokyo Lens vlog­ger Norm Naka­mu­ra in the video at the top of the post. The school is in Ehime, one of the four pre­fec­tures of Shikoku, the sec­ond-small­est of Japan’s main islands. Though pic­turesque, its loca­tion is also deep enough in the moun­tains to seem for­bid­ding­ly remote, but the Ehime-born Aoki seems to have had no com­punc­tion about it.

Ehime faces the Seto Inland Sea, the areas sur­round­ing which Japa­nol­o­gist Don­ald Richie described in the 1960s as pos­sess­ing “the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night.” But for Naka­mu­ra, nine is the hour to set out in search of unex­plained sounds and creepy vibes. Alas, even his best pro­duc­tion efforts can’t mask the obvi­ous seren­i­ty of the prop­er­ty. He encoun­ters much more eeri­ness else­where on Shikoku: Nagoro Vil­lage, the vast major­i­ty of whose inhab­i­tants aren’t human beings but ful­ly dressed, scare­crow-like dolls. Each and every one was craft­ed by Tsuki­mi Ayano, a native who returned from Osa­ka to find most every­one she’d known long gone. As for Nagoro’s own ele­men­tary school, aban­doned for some 20 years now, just wait until you see what “Ayano-san” has done with its gym.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Moun­tain Monks: A Vivid Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Monks Who Prac­tice an Ancient, Once-For­bid­den Reli­gion in Japan

Hōshi: A Short Doc­u­men­tary on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japan­ese Fam­i­ly for 46 Gen­er­a­tions

Dis­cov­er the Japan­ese Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Col­lect­ing Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

When Our World Became a de Chiri­co Paint­ing: How the Avant-Garde Painter Fore­saw the Emp­ty City Streets of 2020

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Revis­its Aban­doned Movie Sets for Star Wars and Oth­er Clas­sic Films in North Africa

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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